The thought of not being able to afford a tampon may never cross the mind of many people. But for thousands of women and girls, it’s a very real threat.
Period poverty, meaning being able to afford little to no sanitary products, is a struggle faced by many around the world.
The impact can be huge, even here in the UK – forcing women and girls to choose between buying food or sanitary products.
Being forced to isolate themselves, or using rags, bunched up toilet roll or newspaper, many face discomfort and humiliation every month.
Research by Plan International, a charity working to achieve equality and rights for girls, revealed that 10% of girls in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary products, with 15% of girls struggling to afford them.
As awareness of period poverty grows, we hear a lot about the impact this has on schoolgirls.
However, less frequently do we hear about another group of women who suffer in silence every day due to period poverty – the victims of abusive relationships.
Women’s Aid, a national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children, defines domestic abuse as: “An incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence.”
Office for National Statistics have revealed in their 2019 domestic abuse report, that 2.4 million adults experience domestic abuse every year in England and Wales, with two thirds of the victims being women.
Staff at Women’s Aid centres across the country work tirelessly every day to help these women fleeing abuse however they need – from emergency refuge to counselling.
One of these centres is Staffordshire Women’s Aid in the West Midlands. Dickie James, the organisation’s chief executive, recalled seeing many women in this position.
“Often, these women have lived in fear, with no human freedom,” she said. “Having to worry about their period on top of that – it’s difficult to imagine the distress that would cause.”
“You can’t imagine the look of relief on a struggling woman’s face when we offer her a tampon.”Dickie James
Dickie explained how the abuse these women face may not have been physical – it could also have been emotional, or financial.
She said: “The withholding of money for basic things is a really powerful form of abuse – leaving someone with no way to purchase essentials, such as sanitary products.”
Sadly, financial abuse is not uncommon – a survey by Women’s Aid taken of domestic abuse survivors revealed nearly a third of the respondents’ access to money had been controlled by the abuser.
Anna Fawcett, who works for another West Midlands women’s centre, Birmingham & Solihull Women’s Aid, explained: “Abusive partners will withhold a woman’s money, and then use it against her.”
“They might prevent her from using sanitary products then accuse her of being disgusting, or smelling, or of not looking after herself.”
She recalled the desperation of some women who previously sought help – they turned up on the doorstep with nothing, fearing for their lives: “We recently saw a woman who literally hadn’t eaten for three days.”
“If she hadn’t even eaten, you can imagine her other physical needs,” Anna added.
She emphasised that we need to be seeing change to the system, to prevent victims of domestic violence from suffering further due to period poverty.
“Nobody in this day and age should be reduced to using cut up rags.”Anna Fawcett
For the majority of people, such a distressing experience is difficult to imagine, but for some women, it’s a daily reality.
In Birmingham, Midlands Voice spoke to 29-year-old Hero, who found herself in this very situation.
Hero was in an on-off relationship which became both physically and psychologically abusive when she was 19. After 3 years, she fled the relationship, and was placed in a refuge facility.
With a mere £15 a week from the refuge to cover her personal costs, including food, she faced a time of period poverty.
“When money is so tight, period products take a big chunk out of your budget,” she recalled. “And if you’re struggling to even eat, sometimes you have to sacrifice them.”
She reflected on the psychological impact this had: “I isolated myself because I was scared of leaking onto my clothes.”
“Battling period poverty made me feel extremely vulnerable.”Hero, domestic abuse survivor
Research by VoucherCodesPro.co.uk, revealed in a Huffpost UK report, suggests that over her lifetime, periods will cost the average British woman over £18,000.
Looking at the costs, we begin to see what they might mean for someone in a refuge.
That comes to £3.45 per period – accounting for nearly a quarter of the £15 weekly budget of a woman in a refuge centre. So, what could that £3.45 have bought her instead?
- 7 own-brand loaves of bread
- 11 own-brand tins of beans
- 6 bags of own-brand pasta
- 3 own-brand ready-to-eat microwave meals.
That’s a lot of food, for someone with almost nothing. Suddenly, the cost of periods doesn’t seem so insignificant.
Seven years since fleeing her attacker, Hero now lives with her partner and two-year-old son, and campaigns against period poverty and domestic abuse.
“I became very introverted after everything that happened,” she recalled. “Now, I’m open and unapologetic about my experiences.”
For the past two years, Hero has been running a group called Viva La Sisterhood, which brings together and empowers other survivors of period poverty, domestic abuse and sexual violence.
She hosts annual events bringing together more than 30 women, such as empowerment workshops with inspirational guest speakers and sanitary product collections for women’s shelters.
She said, “Myself and the women who attend are working to start a conversation and make a difference to the lives of other women in the position I was in.”
In the past few years, we have begun to see a swell of awareness around period poverty, which is a welcome development for those in need.
For example, in 2017, Amika George, a 20-year-old from London, began an online petition, calling for free period products to be available in schools:
This amassed more than 250,000 signatures, and the support of MPs such as Jess Phillips and celebrities such as Suki Waterhouse. Even the Mayor of London was talking about it:
— Mayor of London (gov.uk/coronavirus) (@MayorofLondon) December 20, 2017
The petition broke new ground in raising awareness of UK period poverty. And it was a success – from January this year, a new Department for Education scheme began operating, offering free period products for students of all state-run schools and colleges in England.
We’re seeing some positive changes, but women fleeing domestic abuse still face the imminent question of how they will cope from one day to the next.
These women often rely on smaller, independent charities and organisations, such as Staffordshire charity Period Power, to supply period products where they’re needed.
Since being founded in 2017, Period Power’s support has been in high demand from food banks, women’s aid shelters, and around 130 charities across the West Midlands.
Midlands Voice spoke to Linda Allbutt, the charity’s founder, who established Period Power after realising that period poverty is, “still largely overlooked by society.”
Linda explained, “Some people even question if period poverty actually exists, but they don’t question if we have food poverty.”
“But any woman facing food poverty will obviously be facing period poverty too – if you have to choose between the two, you’ll always choose food.”
She added, “This is especially the case for women fleeing abusive relationships, because sometimes, they truly leave with nothing.”
Period Power is still seeing increasing demand for support, but they have never turned anyone down – and Linda said she plans to keep it that way.
“We have supplied thousands of struggling women with period products over the past couple of years,” she reflected. “But I don’t often sit back and think about everything we’ve achieved – I’m angry that it needs doing in the first place.”
Linda recognises the battle is far from over yet, and Period Power will continue working tirelessly to support women in need.
“As long as women still face period poverty, we’ll continue to do what we can, because it needs doing.”Linda Allbutt, Founder of Period Poverty
So, period poverty is an enormous threat to a woman’s physical health and mental health, such as her feeling of self-worth and emotional wellbeing – even more so for domestic abuse survivors.
And yet, we aren’t talking about it. And we need to be – so get tweeting, tell your friends, share campaigns and sign petitions.
The more people who know about the issue, the better. Some women facing abusive relationships may not be in a position to speak for themselves, but you can – and using your voice doesn’t cost a penny.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse in any form, call 0808 2000 247 – the National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge. Its free, and monitored 24/7.