Go with the Flow - Hygiene for the Homeless
Every woman has an embarrassing period story, a moment when you were caught short or exposed. It’s shameful, humiliating and embarrassing. However, for us, it is a temporary situation. We can purchase products, run home, shower and change. And we can do this as often as we bleed, regularly and periodically.
But for women on the streets, it is a shameful and dreaded monthly occurrence. Having to live from one day to the next, hoping that today doesn’t bring your period. And if it does, having to sneak into the nearest Mcdonalds or public toilet, to stuff toilet paper down days old knickers to prevent them from becoming bloodstained and unwearable.
Choosing, each month between eating and personal hygiene; knowing it isn’t a choice…you have to eat. So turning to shoplifting, facing the embarrassment of getting caught stealing sanitary products. Regularly and periodically, it’s a nightmare.
But it isn’t just the embarrassment that homeless women have to face. Every month, not having access to clean sanitary products can be life threatening. Toxic Shock Syndrome is a rare, but potentially fatal illness. Though there are several causes, it is strongly linked to prolonged use of tampons, which causes bacterial toxins.
And don’t forget tampons are a luxury! In the UK, sanitary products have a 5% tax attached to them, known as the tampon tax. It seems insane that we would consider these products a luxury, but ironically, for homeless women, they really are. They are rare, meaning that when acquired, they need to make them last. So they opt not to remove them for an extended period of time. Paired with poor hygiene and a lack of adequate washing facilities, the risk of contracting Toxic Shock Syndrome(TSS) dramatically increases.
TSS can lead to hospitalisation, and intensive care. And if untreated can lead to multiple organ failure, amputations and outcomes are worse for people who do not remove the source of infection. Treatment usually requires a simple combined course of antibiotics. However, without this, the condition can be fatal in just hours.
It’s a bloody disaster. Pardon the puns, but that’s all periods seem to be. There is very little media coverage or reporting on TSS or lack of products. But plenty of features portraying women on their periods as giant caricatures that are angry and emotional, murderess harpies. As something to be mocked for comedic value, for cheap thrills and laughs. Also, more often than not, men are the perpetrators and are responsible for these inaccuracies and stereotypes. If we raise our voice, share an opinion or have an outburst, ‘being on our period’ is quickly blamed. Take the ‘Grand Old Party’ Debate late last year, when Donald Trump’s comments about debate moderator Megyn Kelly being on her period went viral, leading to the #periodsarenotaninsult.
It should have been followed by #DonaldTrumpis.
All that media is doing is teaching us that periods are humiliating and something to
be ashamed of, when it is the shame and humiliation of homeless women going without essential products that we should be focusing on.
But when we are faced with ignorance, arrogance and false definitions, it becomes difficult to break the taboo and start real conversations and start to solve painful problems.
Now it’s time to start the conversation! We need to highlight these problems. We need to talk about the health implications, and how being underweight and poor nutrition can lead to irregular periods. How male dominated shelters fail to address the needs of female service users, expecting them to simply fit into the homeless service that is ill equipped to deal with them. And suffering from Pre Menstrual Syndrome and Pre Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a more severe version, is bad enough as it is, but to cope with it in unfamiliar surroundings, without basics like painkillers, changes of clothing or a hot water bottle, and constantly being moved from one place to the next, is damaging to both physical and mental health.
It is frustrating, that in the Western World, when the modern tampon was patented over 80 years ago, by Dr Earle Haase, and in 2016, when the average woman uses 16,800 tampons in her menstrual lifetime, there are women, who are still forced to stuff tissue down their knickers to prevent them from bleeding all over themselves. It is frustrating that the healthcare system, which gives free condoms away on the NHS to prevent STI’s, won’t give free sanitary products away to prevent fatal diseases.
And the Government. Our Government, who are supposed to protect us, consider these products a luxury, and have attached a 5% tax. Yet items that are considered essential, and are exempt from this tax include Jaffa Cakes, Bingo, crocodile meat and houseboat moorings, and almost unbelievably, a very similar item – incontinence products…. Absorb that fact.
But it is a problem that it is difficult to control. Local authorities have been accused of manipulating homeless figures, by only counting homeless people bedded down in their sleeping bags. Those sitting up or standing aren’t accounted for. Also, the entire culture of homeless women is based on trying to be hidden away, due to their vulnerability. Making them invisible.
So how can we expect something to be freely available to people whom effectively don’t exist. But these women aren’t invisible, and they do have bodies, and it is our responsibility to be their voices.
As women, as a society, AS MEN, why is it so hard to talk about periods? It’s about time we break the taboo, change perceptions and create honest talk. And we need to create a safe environment to do so. An environment that is supported by charity and brand, and protected by the Government.
It is important to pressure large brands, these brands have global influence. Speak to your local shelters, and make sure that they are aware of the issue. And see if you can create a system of donation points.
When you are enjoying your monthly gift, spare a thought to those who, it is a monthly curse. Tampons aren’t a luxury. Period.