Ah, Periods. Your insides feel like they are being scraped away with a spoon like egg from a shell, and there’s this weird dragging sensation in your womb. I suffer quite terribly with period pain. I spend most of the time in the bath or curled up on the sofa with a hot water bottle, a box of maximum strength paracetamol and a block of Cathedral cheddar.
Despite what the big names in the period business might tell us, there is no good time to be on your period. I mean, no-one in their right mind would willingly wear a tight, white playsuit and stay out until dawn without constantly having to dash to the loo to make sure all is still in order.
Menstruation is a common complaint in the house I share with my best friend. Getting ready for a night out when you’re on your period is a military operation involving knickers large enough to make Bridget Jones cringe, two pairs of tights, a baggy outfit and at least ten minutes of “yes, but can you see anything?”
I don’t care what anyone says – at work, at school, on a fifteen hour flight back from Hong Kong – getting your period is never a great experience, but with access to a good arsenal of supplies, its bearable and we women folk are able to function.
But what if you didn’t have access to these supplies? What if you couldn’t dash to the corner shop when you’re caught short? What if you couldn’t afford them? What if you had to choose between buying food or purchasing a necessary item to stop yourself from bleeding? What if you lived on the streets and had to beg?
The options for menstruating homeless women are extremely limited and disheartening.
Yes, it’s occasionally possible to access tampons and pads at homeless shelters, but these resources are incredibly stretched and the facilities are often full to capacity. As it stands, sexual health clinics and GP surgeries do not give out sanitary supplies – unlike condoms and the contraceptive pill – and until very recently they were even considered a ‘luxury’ item and were hit with a 5% tax.
“I remember having a conversation with a male friend about the cost of being a woman and buying tampons and pads,” says Christina Ward, who heads up campaign, The Monthly Gift. She’s very kindly agreed to chat to me about her fantastic charitable efforts as she takes her lunch break. “He said to me, ‘Well, I always thought you got all that from the doctor.’”
We both laugh at this concept, fully aware of just how expensive being female can be.
“I began thinking about the cost of living as a woman, such as buying tampons each month, and I realised that there would be so many homeless women unable to access proper sanitary products.”
As a result, Ward set up The Monthly Gift to encourage donations of sanitary products for homeless women.
Working in association with The Mustard Tree homeless charity based on Booth Street, the campaign has received donations from schools, local businesses and members of the public at drop off points in the city such as vintage store COW, Tea Hive, Night and Day Café and RCNQ.
“It started off as a month-long campaign in July 2015 and finished with a fundraising gig at Night and Day Café. It was well received and there was so much support but I knew this would need to be ongoing.”
I feel quite guilty when she says this. It’s not really something that I have given much thought to despite living in a in a city like Manchester where our homeless population is heartbreakingly prolific and on the rise (official 2015 figures show that the number of people on the streets in Greater Manchester had risen by 50% during that year). When I moved back to Manchester last year after some time away, I was really surprised by the amount of homeless people in the city centre.
“Sometimes it seems as if there are three people to a street,” Ward agrees sadly.
It wasn’t until my friend, Jess, began to tell me about a charity box she had seen in Cow that I really started to think about how extremely simple and effective the thought process behind the campaign is.
After spending a little time researching the figures of homeless women, I was surprised to see that females only make up around a quarter of the overall number. Is this a reason why issues relating specifically to women have been severely overlooked? Possibly.
As I started to read about some of the ways in which women are forced to deal with menstruation – socks, bits of old clothing, even rolled up newspaper – it became apparent that something really needs to be done to stop these women having to live in such a way where their basic rights have been taken away.
The Monthly Gift, which is one of a few similar campaigns such as Time of the Month and Every Month in Manchester and The Homeless Period Petition, which seek to provide homeless women with support and products.
These campaigns are not only ensuring that fewer homeless women are having to beg for, or even go without, sanitary products, but are also helping to bring the conversation concerning periods into the public sphere.
As a society, we are conditioned not to talk about periods. Tampons come in discreet packaging (I remember having to hide them up my sleeve at school and sneak off to the loos before anyone noticed). Adverts show off their products in a conveniently neat manner using a weird blue goo rather than anything that resembles blood. People make ‘time of the month’ jokes as though we’re still on the playground. Teenagers are taught separately about ‘bodily issues,’ which is problematic in itself when we think of gender identity and issues.
But Ward believes people are really starting to talk about the issue.
“The support from schools has been fantastic and not just the girls either. Lots of young people have wanted to donate and expressed an interest in social action. We’ve had great support from men too. They came to the gigs and made donations.”
“We’ve had so many donations from local schools. It has been amazing.”
The subject of menstruation, and more specifically, the public attitude towards sanitary products is certainly garnering a bit more attention. But it still seems as though we have to fight for it.
The 5% tax on tampons and pads was lifted earlier in the year but only after much petitioning, deliberation and discussion. For me, it seems strange that we still don’t discuss periods in the public arena, especially when keeping quiet could mean that vulnerable women don’t have access to what I consider to be a basic right. We aren’t talking about razors or make up which are, of course, luxury items, but an absolute necessity.
So why has this necessity not extended to vulnerable women? Why aren’t the government providing tampons and towels through homeless shelters as they do with condoms? After all, you don’t stop being a woman just because you have been forced to sleep rough. Periods don’t magically disappear.
Well, this is where The Monthly Gift steps up. It’s all about creating awareness and education, of liaising with schools and the public, and simply starting a conversation.
So what’s next for Ward and The Monthly Gift?
“I’m really hoping to get more boxes done soon. There has been a great reception to the campaign and all of the Manchester groups work together. I have a meeting next week with the organiser of Every Month to discuss future events, and next Monday is the opening night of Woman in Print which I am really excited about.”
Women in Print is an exhibition to celebrate the role of women in Manchester’s past and present. The launch will be held on Monday 18th July at Rudy’s Pizza in the Northern Quarter, and will be home to one of The Monthly Gift’s donation boxes. Head over to Twitter for more details @womeninprintmcr about this great event curated by Jane Bower.
And please, take a minute to sign the Homeless Period Petition which is calling for tampons and towels to be made available through homeless shelters. Head over to Facebook (The Monthly Gift MCR) or Twitter @themonthlygiftmcr for more information about how and where you can donate.
Women should not have to beg for tampons!
* It’s Not Grim Up North is my blog for Northern Soul.