30 October 2017 – Hospitals, surgeries and shelters are not providing sanitary products for homeless people, despite the huge mobilisation for low income women’s right in the last few years.
Women’s services manager for the charity Spires, Pamela Mhlophe, is concerned about the current situation: “In this moment, with NHS cutting down on many services, I don’t think they will tackle this problem too,“ she said. ”Private citizens and companies are helping through donations, but it should be a public issue.”
Homeless women are used to living a dangerous life, full of risks, but it becomes much more difficult when they have their period. Besides finding food, a job and a place to stay, they have to look for a private toilet to wash themselves and, most importantly, find access to sanitary towels.
Patricia told us her experience of having her period without access to sanitary products:
Three years ago, the campaign #TheHomelessPeriod raised awareness on this issue and a petition collected over 110,000 signatures to ask public bodies to give charities an allowance to buy sanitary products. The topic was raised in parliament last December, but unfortunately, they haven’t addressed this problem yet.
Homeless women in the UK
According to the last report of the charity Shelter, there are 307,000 homeless people in the UK, or one in every 200. Among them, 29 per cent are women, according to the Homeless Health Needs Audit (2015).
However, it is very difficult to collect data on homelessness, since many people sleeping rough do not appear in official statistics at all in a phenomenon known as “hidden homelessness”. Usually figures are an underestimate and charities are denouncing the inaccuracy of this kind of statistics.
Patricia also explained how vulnerable homeless women are:
Risks for physical and mental health
Without sanitary towels, a woman’s dignity is under threat. According to #TheHomelessPeriod campaign, some homeless women are forced to use ripped up cloths, old clothes or toilet roll from public toilets, or make just a few towels last the entire length of their period. This can cause infection and seriously harm their physical health.
“It is risky for their mental health too and it makes life so difficult to cope with,” Mhlophe said. “If a woman can’t find sanitary towels, the whole world would know that she’s having her period. So they have to go to places like McDonald or some private toilet where they can make themselves as decent as possible.”
Also, all women are different. Some of them have a heavy period, while others have a light period. “Can you imagine having heavy period and you do not have sanitary towels?” Mhlophe added. “You are going to use your t-shirt or your clothes to make it work. It’s quite a delicate situation, and women shouldn’t go through that.”
Taxes and high prices reduce access to sanitary products
Unfortunately, there is still a large group of women who don’t have access to sanitary towels, and since they are not exempt from tax, it is quite expensive. “Still now there are families that have no recourse to public funds, women who don’t have benefits, asylum seekers who have been refused,” Mhlophe said. “Some of them come from really poor neighbourhoods, but they are not homeless and so they are even more invisible. I think all clinics, surgeries and also schools should provide sanitary towels for free.”
That’s why campaigners are now struggling to take tax off tampons, sanitary pads and menstrual cups, arguing that “periods are no luxury, you cannot choose to menstruate,” which was stated in the online petition #EndTamponsTax. They attracted 320,089 signatures and the government has reduced the rate from 17.5 to 5 per cent.
However, sanitary products cannot escape tax entirely, because EU rules about the Common Market classify sanitary products as “non-essential, luxury” items. European ministers have already agreed to modify the rules, but the change cannot come into effect until at least 2018.
In July, Tesco announced to cut prices on 100 women’s sanitary products and pay tampon tax itself.
“Again, the private sector takes charges of services that should be guaranteed by public sector,” Mhlophe concluded.