Claire Hunt, founder of Positive Period, hates the term period poverty. “The women that it truly affects get lost in that,” she says. “Period poverty is, in fact, a facet of poverty and that’s the part that people don’t like to think about. If someone genuinely can’t afford to buy period products, then they can’t afford to buy food and they’re most likely availing of food banks, and they’re unable to buy fuel and all of those basic items.
“It’s a very misleading term and one that gets bandied about on International Women’s day. I think it’s become very, very trendy and something to talk about because people like to use the word period, or they like to use the word vagina. And they think it’s a cool thing to talk about, but without thinking about the sad issue that’s actually behind it all, which is that women in all of our communities, are experiencing poverty.”
Hunt says the inability to afford period products can affect women from every background. “There’s the obvious categories of homelessness and direct provision, but also categories that people don’t like to think about – women who are victims of domestic violence or coercive control, young girls who are carers for their parents, young girls who might not be living with mothers, young girls whose mothers might be in prison. All of these sort of issues are areas of our society that people don’t like to think about.”
For the girls and women who can’t afford to purchase the period products they need, life can be put on hold, or alternative, often unsuitable solutions, need to be found, Hunt explains. “What they are doing, sadly, is using cut-up pieces of fabric, they’re using newspaper, they’re using cotton wool, they’re using torn up nappies. Or they are free bleeding, which means they’re not using anything and they are missing out on day-to-day activities and just basically hiding for the few days that they have their period.”
Within an abusive relationship you can have someone whose purse-strings aren’t their own. Or, as I have heard, of someone who is being punished by their husband and not allowed to buy these products— Claire Hunt, founder of Positive Period
While people might argue that period products can be available at low prices in some chain supermarkets, Hunt points out that not everyone lives close to one of these supermarkets. Often in rural settings, the local pharmacy or small shop, which can be significantly more expensive, might their only available option to purchase period products. “It’s not one size fits all,” she says, explaining that need varies also depending on how heavy a woman’s period might be, and one packet of tampons or pads might not suffice. She also points to situations where a mother may have several daughters, and with several menstruating women and girls in a household the cost can quickly add up.
“Women in direct provision have a very small budget to live on weekly,” Hunt says. For women in a coercive control, abuse situation, accessing period products can also be difficult. “It’s something that happens within all our communities... within an abusive relationship you can have someone whose purse-strings aren’t their own. Or, as I have heard, of someone who is being punished by their husband and not allowed to buy these products.
“Something that’s very hidden and not talked about is women presenting themselves to a maternity hospital to either give birth, for post-abortive care, or for miscarriage and they don’t have pads in their bags.”
Women in addiction centres, women coming out of prisons, and sex workers “who are under the care of not-so-nice pimps” are also vulnerable to the poverty that leaves them unable to afford period products, Hunt explains.
‘Prices are going up’
The cost-of-living crisis has also exacerbated the situation. “Since September, October, I’ve had a huge demand in organisations looking for products. We’ve all seen it in supermarkets recently where deodorant, shower gel, all of those things, the prices are going up and, sadly, within that, period products are too. And women will always cut back on things that are seen as luxury items, and period products are in that luxury-item category.”
Mavis used to live in Direct Provision. While she was there, her facility did not provide period products, she says. “Claire and the team of volunteers used to drop them when we needed them, which helped a lot.”
Before this, Mavis struggled to pay for period products from her allowance. “You had to improvise and find other ways, like old material,” she says. If she could afford the cheapest products, she found they sometimes weren’t suitable for the heavy periods she had. “You have to be mindful whenever you go out, you keep looking at yourself to see if there’s no leaks. Or you stay at home when you can,” she says. “The first three days for me I need more than one packet.”
Although period products are supposed to be provided to women living in Direct Provision centres, Hunt says she is still asked by some centres to provide supplies.
Carla lived in hostels for four or five years. ‘For a time I wouldn’t have been able to get any social welfare without an address. Period products would have been the first thing to go off my list’
Carla comes from a low-income background. “I found myself homeless at the age of 19,″ she says. “When it comes to period poverty, it was always there prior to being homeless. With low income, I’m sure mum would have done without, for us.”
Carla lived in hostels for four or five years. “For a time I wouldn’t have been able to get any social welfare without an address. Period products would have been the first thing to go off my list.
“I would have just used tissue. Just wrap and wrap and wrap. It wasn’t great, obviously. It’s not very sanitary either. The rooms that were in the hostel, it was all shared bathrooms, so you had to leave the room to use the bathroom, you’re sharing it with men, children. You want to be able to be clean and when you have to wrap with tissue, you just don’t feel it. I suppose there’s a level of shame as well. And if you leaked – tissue is not very absorbent.
“But even when I first moved out of the hostel, when I did get social housing, which I was so thankful for... I was still on the same income, running a house then. I was still running a household, electricity, your rent, food, bins, I didn’t have telly for a very long time, I couldn’t afford it.”
People are afraid to say the word period... People still call them flowers, instead of saying menstruation— Carla
Affording period products remained an issue for Carla as she tried to pick up her education and afford the cost of her basic needs. Having first-hand experience of poverty, Carla has been involved in ensuring period products are freely available to students in UCD.
It’s not a problem that’s going away, Carla feels. “It’s still a huge issue. It’s a systemic issue”, but she’s glad that it’s being discussed. “It’s important that periods are not stigmatised and that it’s normalised in our communities and that we’re not afraid to talk about periods. People are afraid to say the word period. We’re still there. People still call them flowers, instead of saying menstruation.”
“I do think there’s a lot of people jumping on it [the bandwagon] without understanding people like me who really struggled with it, and that there’s people like me who are living this situation”
If men were expected to bring their own toilet roll to bathrooms “we wouldn’t be having this conversation”, Carla says.