Menstruation is difficult to deal with. Period. When I menstruate, I can’t help but feel out of sync with my body even though it’s doing what it’s biologically meant to do. It’s not always a pleasant experience; my digestive system feels completely out of whack and period pain can be disruptive and frustrating.
For some women, menstruation often comes hand-in-hand with heavy bleeding, nausea and cramps – something that is intensified for women with endometriosis. Due to the period taboo, women feel the need to hide their periods because it is unhygienic and disgusting. For transgender men, there’s another layer of gender dysphoria.
On top of that, there’s unavoidable financial costs that are essential to managing periods with dignity. Pads, tampons and period cups are expensive. Many women accept these expenses without questioning because they have been buying these products since menarche. Those who live comfortably can afford to toss a box of pads into the trolley without any thought.
Many women, particularly homeless women, cannot afford menstrual products at all.
Periods and homelessness are both taboos. Not only is there a pressure to keep menstruation invisible, homeless women cannot afford menstruation products because it is not in their financial capacity. It’s a contradictory situation. The unfortunate outcome is that these women cannot access support to safely manage their periods because nobody’s willing to talk about it.
According to the National Homeless Collective’s 2017 Annual Report, over 100,000 Australians are experiencing homelessness. Out of this overall statistic, 44% of those without shelter are women.
Menstruation is already stigmatised amongst women and girls who live in privileged circumstances with permanent shelter, financial stability, secure employment and access to food. Imagine menstruating without the comfort of a home, not knowing when you’ll have your next meal or whether you’ll be able to sleep safely. Menstruation is an added expense that many of homeless women cannot accommodate for. This is known as period poverty.
Bianca, 21, holds a makeshift pad she’s made from an odd sock and a layer of paper towels, held together by double-sided sticky tape. Photo: giftboxorganic.com
Menstrual products don’t seem like they break the bank when you’re buying a box of pads once a month, but this cost accumulates over time. In Australia, the average menstruating person will spend $5600 over a lifetime on their period. That’s about $19,000 when we include pain relief, or having to buy new underwear when spillages occur.
The reality is that homeless women often do not have the capacity to purchase menstrual products to manage their periods. It’s choosing between a meal and a pad. Gabi Alosi, who became homeless when struggling with mental illness, explained, “Not having access to pads and tampons for homeless women and teens came as a big surprise to me, generally when you’re thinking of survival having menstrual products doesn’t come to mind and can catch you completely off guard”.
Women often resort to using makeshift pads made out of paper towels, cloths and even newspaper and leaves to manage their periods. This exacerbates the problem entirely. Outreach worker from the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation, Monique Warshall, says that these makeshift menstrual items often leave women and girls susceptible to infection. She says, “They’re getting urinary tract infections, bladder infections, some of them are getting skin infections because they’re not cleaning themselves properly, and then they’re getting their period, they’re getting skin infections around that area, due to lack of cleaning and being able to look after themselves”.
Given the limited options and financial capacity, the only other alternative is stealing. Without accessible ways of managing their periods, people experiencing homelessness may feel a sense of shame or embarrassment as a result of period stain or odour.
While there are homeless services that offer assistance, they are ultimately geared towards men. The menstrual taboo is to blame for this because it has meant that women’s experiences have been streamlined with men’s hegemonic experience. Other toiletries are provided, but menstruation products are in limited supply. In 2015, CEO of the Australian Women’s Health Network, Kelly Banister, said that she was not aware of any homeless shelters that provided pads and tampons.
Homeless women have had to rely on charities and social enterprises to do the work. Here are some great organisations that are advocating for menstrual products in Australia:
The Period Project is an initiative by the National Homeless Collective that started in 2015. Operating from a volunteer-run warehouse in Port Melbourne, the MPP provides six types of period packs to those experiencing homelessness and addresses different types of people who bleed.
People experiencing heavier periods may opt in for the Sunflower pack, which offers tampons and pads to manage more blood flow. There is also a personalised pack for transgender men. MPP are also mindful that not all people may feel comfortable with the insertion of tampons, and provides pad-only packs too!
Speaking of the importance of the project, founder Donna Stolzenberg says, “A box of tampons is not just a box of tampons. It’s much more than a tangible item. It offers the person the ability to stay engaged in their community and not to be bullied by a bodily function you have no control over”.
Check out their website here.
Share the Dignity is determined to ensure that every woman has access to menstrual products, no matter what their circumstance is. As a part of their organisation, Rochelle Courtenay and her team at Share the Dignity have tirelessly worked to improve the lives of those experiencing periods, installing Share the Dignity vending machines at homeless shelters that dispense two pads and six tampons for free!
Every year, Share the Dignity collects thousands of pads, tampons and personal hygiene products for donation through their ‘Dignity Drive’ and ‘It’s in The Bag!’ campaign.
You can find out more and donate here.
Make a change through social enterprise! It’s as easy as pie – you buy a box of organic tampons from Gift Box Organic, and in turn, they donate a box to a woman in need.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign that saw more than $45,000 donated, Saskia Hampele launched Gift Box Organic. Since then, there has been 200,182 tampons donated Australia-wide.
Check out their website here.
The work of these incredible organisations tell us that there is still such a huge gap in support for homeless people experiencing periods. Recognition that these circumstances exist for people experiencing periods on both a conversational-level and policy-level is a good first step. It’s pivotal that moving forward, we continue to advocate for homeless women and transgender people and support them so that they can manage their menstruation with dignity.
Casey is an Arts/Law student at Monash University and is passionate about storytelling.