Next time you're giving to a food bank, give tampons
I'm sure we'll all agree: being a 14-year-old girl is hard work.
There's the acne, b*tchy classmates, and all of the other things that still make us cringe. But imagine for a second that on top of all that stuff, when your period comes there’s nothing to soak it up. No tampons, no sanitary towels, just the wedge-of-toilet-paper trick and a desperate hope that nothing leaks through.
What is the "tampon tax"?
The so-called "tampon tax’" - VAT paid on sanitary products owing to their status as a luxury item - garnered a lot of attention in the British media.
And, the day has finally come. In the 2020 budget, the UK government announced that the controversial tax will finally be scrapped. Previously, tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups were categorised as "non-essential, luxury goods". And they had a 5% VAT.
But being able to afford tampons in the first place is a "luxury" that not everyone can afford. When it comes to what to donate to food banks, the first things that pop into your mind are likely a bag of pasta or a can of beans. But for too many women period poverty is as real and pressing an issue as food poverty.
Period poverty is a real issue for millions of women
To this day, sanitary products remain one of the most under-donated charity items. Molly Hodson is the head of media and external affairs at The Trussell Trust. The charity operates over 400 food backs in the UK.
As she explains:
“It’s really important, especially in terms of dignity, to be able to cope. We’ve heard some horrible reports from some of our food banks where women were having to use newspaper and that sort of thing.
"Obviously you have to be resourceful in these situations and people come up with all kinds of coping mechanisms but we’d prefer they didn’t have to cope, and that they actually were able to have what everybody else has.”
In the UK, the use of food banks has grown over the past five years. In 2016-2017, The Trussell Trust distributed 1.2 million, including over 440,000 to families with children.
And further, to those run by The Trussell Trust, there are a further 680 food banks operating in the UK. So, the number of people in need of this kind of support is thought to be much higher.
This growth is also being replicated in the United States. Feeding America food banks now distribute a staggering four billion meals every single year. Period poverty has been declared a "menstrual crisis" in the media.
What is the impact on women's health?
Among the key concerns surrounding the lack of access to sanitary provisions is the potential impact on women’s health. Indeed, some women have reported that they are making do with just one tampon per day.
Aside from the risk of developing potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome, which can be caused by leaving tampons in for longer than the recommended time, prolonged use can also lead to unwanted smells. This can put women at risk of bullying and ostracisation.
And, the use of other "make-do" methods reported by women, including newspapers, toilet paper and rolled-up socks, poses a real risk of infection.
However, it’s not only health that is being affected by period poverty, but education too. According to the charity Freedom4Girls, who were contacted for help by a school in West Yorkshire last year, more girls are missing school because their families cannot afford sanitary products.
One teenager explained to the BBC how she:
"Taped toilet roll to her underwear and missed school "every month" because of her period."
With the age that girls start their periods at steadily decreasing, this problem is likely to affect their education from an earlier stage.
What can we do to help?
So how can you help? Well, there are a few things:
The next time you buy tampons or sanitary towels for yourself, buy an extra pack and donate them there and then. Many supermarkets now have food bank donation points.
You can also make financial donations to a food bank so they are able to purchase sanitary products directly. This can be done via The Trussell Trust's website.
Look for other organisations that can help women facing this or similar situations. In the UK, The Homeless Period, which provides free sanitary products to homeless women is lobbying the British government to provide them free of charge in homeless shelters, as they do contraception.
And perhaps most importantly of all... stop being embarrassed to talk about periods - speak about them in the office, on your social media, in front of your partner. Half of the world’s population have them every single month. The quicker we end the stigma surrounding periods, the quicker people will feel comfortable donating tampons and sanitary towels.