Tina Leslie can remember the experience of starting her period as clearly as if it were yesterday. She was 11 years old, on a French exchange trip and could not access menstrual products. For a week, she managed with toilet paper and slept on the floor, worried she would soil the bed sheets. Today, the reality for thousands of women and girls up and down the country, who are living in what has been labelled “period poverty” is little different.
It is why an army of volunteers are running alleviation schemes across the UK, handing out toiletries and period products to those in need. Tina is behind the Freedom4Girls project, based in Leeds, which supplies menstrual items to schools, food banks, women’s refuges and homeless charities. “This needs to be addressed because it is stopping women and girls getting on with their lives,” she says.
She founded the project in late 2016, after spending time volunteering in Kenya, where she was “horrified” to discover that around 60 per cent of girls and women had no access to safe menstrual protection. It took her back to her own childhood experience – “I thought, these women and girls are having to manage like that every single month” – so she set up the scheme there, initially making washable reusable sanitary pads. She launched in Leeds the following March, after being approached by a staff member from one of the city’s schools, asking for help with girls who were skipping lessons as they did not have access to affordable menstrual protection.
“I thought, I’ve got to do something, this is on our doorstep.” Since then, the charity has come across people using everything from toilet paper to socks to try and get by. “[Agency workers] come to us and say ‘I’ve had a lady sat here this morning and she was using a tea towel, she’s come to the food bank in tears’. We have had homeless girls using McDonald’s toilet paper, women who have gone to a community centre and used green paper towels – it’s really difficult if you have not got any proper protection.”
“This is a problem and we need to address it,” she adds. “So we just get on with it.” The charity also works to tackle the stigma and taboo around periods, educating both men and women, and providing information about choice in products, offering both disposable pads and tampons alongside washable re-usable items.
Two years ago, it handed out about 100 packets of menstrual products each month. That total is now more than 1,000 – a rise which Tina puts down, at least in part, to more talk about periods nationally and people being less afraid to ask for help. The charity now has donation stations across Leeds, some in Sheffield and Redcar, and, as well as delivering to agencies, runs community pick up points where people can help themselves to items discreetly. Help in Handbags is one project that collects items for it to distribute.
Launched by junior doctors Hannah Barham-Brown and Lucy Brooks in November, and supported by colleagues in the British Medical Association Yorkshire and the local branch of the Women’s Equality Party, it provides handbags filled with toiletries and a month’s worth of menstrual products. “If you are already struggling to feed your family and relying on food banks, then sanitary products come down the bottom of the list of priorities,” Dr Barham-Brown says. “As a GP, I know period poverty is something that affects a lot of people who menstruate in our area. It’s a very real problem.” The project has handed out more than 90 bags and volunteers hope it can expand so that products are available in local GP surgeries. “The knock on wider economic effects of [period poverty] is it is taking women and girls out of work and school. It makes sense to provide these things.”
Also a frontline worker, supporting vulnerable women involved in street prostitution, Rosie Peers, has seen period poverty first hand. Since last January, she and sister Eleanor have run The Homeless Period Appeal Sheffield, taking over from its 2016 founder Kelly Hawley. It provides ‘period packs’ containing menstrual products, chocolate, toiletries and underwear to homeless and vulnerable people, distributing them to refuges, hostels and housing associations.
“We have both seen women with nothing,” says Rosie, who has supported women “drenched in blood”. “To be able to give them these packs means they can have time out and be sorted for a few months.”
Latest figures suggest an average of 27 per cent of women and girls in the UK are unable to afford menstrual products.
In Leeds, that stands at just over a third, according to the data, published last week following a survey of 1,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales by Hey Girls - a buy one, give one period product social enterprise, the Bloody Big Brunch period poverty campaign, and Ginger Comms. Of those who had experienced period poverty, 68 per cent had used a makeshift product and more than quarter of girls and women had missed school or work.
It was anger at the latter – girls losing out on their education – that prompted three friends to found the Red Box Project in Portsmouth in March 2017. Now running in communities across the country, including more than 20 schemes in Yorkshire, it provides constantly stocked boxes of tampons, pads, tights and underwear to local schools, relying on donations.
The project was launched in Beverley and the surrounding areas in October by Pippa Chan, a teacher at a school in Hull, which she says was having to pay for sanitary wear for its pupils out of its own finances. “It’s helping to remove that stigma around periods” she says. “I am being told by other schools that girls aren’t embarrassed to go and ask [for products] any more.”
Jay Kelly speaks of a similar situation, with teachers funding sanitary items out of their own pockets, in Harrogate, where she has run the project since July. “For a lot of people, costs are going up and incomes aren’t,” says the mum of four girls. “There’s a huge amount of poverty even in Harrogate, which has a reputation as being an affluent place. [Period poverty] is not just about money, it’s about dignity.”
She tells of a woman raised by her father, who, due to the ‘taboo’, was embarrassed by her periods. “As a teenager, this lady turned to begging, stealing and borrowing just to make sure she had something. Still, we have girls not going into school when they are bleeding or using toilet roll to try and get them through. It’s 2019, people shouldn’t live like this.”
A range of reasons contribute to women and girls not having access to products, the volunteers say, not just financial difficulties. And “we all have stories to tell about how we have had accidents when we have been caught short on our periods,” Tina points out. It is for this reason, she, and others will continue to campaign for menstrual products to be freely available to anyone who needs them.
According to the latest survey, 65 per cent of people think period products should be available free for all women and girls. Last year the Scottish Government became the first in the world to make free items available to students at schools, colleges and universities and the Welsh Government has also pledged £1m to help address period poverty among girls and young women, leading campaigners to claim that England is being “left behind”.
On March 3, the Big Bloody Brunch, which says the average spend on tampons and towels is £4,800 over a lifetime, is urging people to hold brunches, serving Bloody Marys in exchange for period products, in the hope of pressing Westminster for change. Visit www.bloodybigbrunch.com