Tampons Are Not a Bloody Luxury

For most women, having to buy tampons is an eye-roll, an inconvenience, but for one in five parents in the UK it’s the choice between using their monthly wage or benefits package to pay the bills or feed their children.

When asked why she started giving free sanitary products to young girls from difficult backgrounds, Lorraine Snow MBE, from Whitehawk’s Crew Club youth centre, said that she saw a desperate need for help, and did something about it. “Girls were telling me that they have got two older sisters and when they had their period they were only allowed to have one pad a day because mum was on benefits and she couldn’t afford to buy more, and I thought ‘This is ridiculous.’” This intro starts in a long-winded way – grab the reader more effectively more quickly.

Lorraine, 60, has been working at the Crew Club for 18 years, but previously she was a struggling single mother-of-four, receiving benefits to keep her family afloat. “I’ve definitely gone without dinner to buy things that we need.”

Lorraine keeps a stash of products, some of which she funds from her own purse, to make up little packs for the girl who need them. Into these packs she puts a supply of sanitary towels (nighttime and daytime), a couple of tampons, feminine wipes, and sometimes slips in a bar of chocolate.
Girls are given a card similar to the C-Card that you can get for condoms, which is ticked to show they have collected their allotted packs for each month. She estimates that about 20 to 24 girls come through the centre each month, most only between 12 and 16-years-old.

For most women, having to buy tampons is an eye-roll, an inconvenience, but for one in five parents in the UK it’s the choice between using their monthly wage or benefits package to pay the bills or feed their children.

A large part of the reason that pads and tampons are so expensive is because of the tax that the government has tagged onto them, after promising last year to lift it when a petition against the tax raised 320,086 signatures.

It was only in the recent Spring Budget report of March 8, falling on the same day as International Women’s Day, that the tax snuck itself back in. This particular tax is one for items classed as “luxury”, whilst items classed as “essential”, such as Jaffa cakes and edible cake decorations, get off scot-free.

As Lorraine recalls the worst stories that young girls have confessed to her, her eyes mist a little, and her voice becomes soft with empathy. It’s clear then why she helps the girls in the way that she does, and how much they need her. “I had one little girl who said to me ‘Can I take some home to my mum?’ Another who told me that they use toilet roll. Socks, toilet roll. Some don’t use anything.”

“The worst one for me was the girl who had really bad personal hygiene.” Lorraine describes one of the activities that she asks the girls to take part in, where they are each given ten pounds and take a trip to the shops, to see who can get the most amount of essential items with their money.

“This girl said, ‘But can I not just buy all sanitary towels?’ and I said, no, you’re going to buy what you need. I asked her why and she said ‘I only get one a day, at bedtime. When I go to bed I get one to go to bed with.’”

Periods are something that unites women. No matter what their background may be, all girls are affected in at least some way. Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form is in an affluent area of Hove, and the majority of its students come from middle-class​ families. However, as the girls from the sixth form’s feminist society recall their early years of having periods, it’s clear that there are severe problems with how periods are treated in this country, whatever your social upbringing may be.

Eighteen-year-old Maya Tutton says: “I really struggled with period pain when I was younger and I had to go on the pill because of it and I was missing like four days a month of school because of my period. We were given this little chat about the period and we were told that it was gonna be really painful, just like blood everywhere.”

Francesca Malila says: “I started mine when I was ten so we’d had no education about it at school or anything, and I didn’t know what to do, and it felt really embarrassing.” However both girls agree that their upbringing means that their periods are easier than it is for some women, as their parents pay for their tampons for them and it’s not really something they have to think about. They both find it deeply upsetting that many girls aren’t in the same position.

Lorraine Snow remembers another story. “I had a girl of nine and she came to me one day and said, ‘I’m bleeding.’ And I said to hold on, wait for me.” Lorraine phoned the girl’s mum and explained that she thought she had started her period. “Her exact words were ‘Don’t be so effing stupid, she’s only effing nine. Anyway, I don’t even know if she’s coming home tonight.”

After giving the child a sanitary pad, Lorraine took her home. “As we walked through the door, her mum said, ‘Go and have a bath.’”

The next morning, Lorraine went to ASDA to buy some sanitary pads and a pack of six pairs of knickers, and put them in a little makeup bag for the girl. “She came to me, straight from school, and I asked her if her mummy had had a chat last night, and she said, ‘No, I didn’t have a bath, I went straight to my friend’s.’” The girl was still left in the same sanitary towel as the previous day, as she didn’t know to change it herself, and hadn’t been given any more from her mother. She thought she was in trouble, that she was dirty, as she’d been told to take a bath. Lorraine said: “I was so upset that I cried.”

Perhaps in large part what it really boils down to is stigma. Despite being as natural as a sneeze, as uncontrollable as a cough, periods are seen generally as something that shouldn’t be talked about. This creates a lack of tolerance and understanding in a male-dominated government, and leads to decisions that are not in the best interest of women.

Another BHASVIC feminist society member, Miriam Segal, says she feels like she has to take care to act positive when she has her period, or else people will be able to tell and make fun of her for it. “I remember in secondary school if you opened your bag and there was a pad, everyone would be like, ‘Ooh, isn’t that a bit disgusting?’” Maya points out that stigma in schools and workplaces causes women to feel like they should hide their tampons, feeling embarrassed if they accidentally drop it on the way to the toilet.

Lorraine Snow believes that people power is the key to provoking change. “I got talking to a group of girls a couple of years ago and we wanted to draw up a petition about free sanitary products for under 18s and send it out to every college, university, every school, every youth club and collect signatures. If we got a petition signed, I reckon we achieve this.”

For the first time in history, the House of Lords opened up a discussion on the state of sanitary products on March 14. Baroness Burt of Solihull painted the UK’s current situation as a “shocking state of affairs”, leading on to propose an initiative that buttonholed the government: “Could we not give sanitary towels to girls who qualify for free school meals? We already know who they are, and the cost of setting up the system would, I am sure, be very small.”

There lies a severe lack of understanding for menstruation, and young girls and women are forfeiting their hygiene for this. We need to take action now. We need to start up as many open conversations about periods as we can, in schools, in government, on the streets. We need to normalise the period.

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