The embarrassment of wadding up tissue in your pants. The fear of leaking, the fear of classmates laughing. The dread of talking about it. Eve Smallman explores the issue of period poverty in Nottingham…
Last month it was announced that Nottingham City Council would provide free sanitary products in schools.
The city is well-known for tackling women’s issues, with it being the first city in the UK to make misogyny a hate crime.
But Nottingham is also well-known for being underprivileged. Earlier on this year it was announced that Nottingham has the lowest incomes in the country.
Elizabeth* is 40. She’s a mother-of-two and lives in Sherwood. 27 years ago, Elizabeth experienced period poverty throughout her teenagerhood.
“My father wasn’t around and my mother was a drug addict – she wasn’t using illegal drugs, she was on a programme to cure her methadone addiction – but she was still a methadone addict.
“As an unemployed single parent family on income, there wasn’t much money around,” said Elizabeth.
When she was thirteen she started her period, however sanitary products weren’t something she had access to.
“My mum used tissue paper as well, or a wadded-up sock – you’d have a wadded up sock wrapped up with tissue paper in your pants.
“There wasn’t enough money for food, so sanitary products weren’t even a consideration.”
At the time her school did provide free sanitary products – starter packs were handed and there was a box in the nurse’s office where pupils could help themselves.
“I remember getting tampons from the PE teacher, and thinking: ‘These precious things, I’ve got to be careful with them.’”
“In the nurse’s office, they were placed in an area where everyone could see, so kids queueing up for lunch could see you go and getting them.
“It was really humiliating, and it was better to go for the tissue option.”
Women and girls who don’t have access to products can be left at risk to health problems – and if they leave products in too long when they do have access to them, they can be at risk of deadly diseases such as Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Elizabeth said: “Not being able to keep yourself clean and not smelly… That was a problem.
“PE classes had a communal changing area, so if I was able to get my hands on some tampons it was fine, but if you’ve got pants full of wadded up tissue, you don’t want anyone to see that.
“They weren’t particularly absorbent so they’d leak onto your clothes, and I was being bullied at school anyway, because people knew I was a junkie’s daughter.”
The lack of access to sanitary products often means that girls skip school in order to avoid embarrassment. This can have a long-term effect on their education.
“If I didn’t have access to the products, I wouldn’t go – I had no guarantee the tissue wouldn’t leak, and if we couldn’t afford food, being able to afford cleaning products was a problem as well.
“I left without any formal qualifications – I had to go back and do those later – but I wanted to get a job so I could afford to live normally.”
The stigma and embarrassment around periods in society in general is one of the key factors in period poverty. Helen Voce, CEO of Nottingham’s Women Centre said: “Women have been bleeding since humanity began, so why is it such an issue?”.
Claire Henson, founder of The Free Period Nottingham, said: “Women have this embarrassment about asking for [sanitary products], and not knowing if they can, and not wanting people to know that they’re in this position.
“It’s taboo, it’s seen as this terrible thing – it’s not a luxury, it’s a bodily function, and it baffles me.”
Elizabeth said: “As grown women we need to get over internalized misogyny and talk about it really openly.”
Along with Nottingham City Council, organisations like Nottingham Women’s Centre and The Free Period Nottingham are also helping reduce the problem.
Helen said: “We did a campaign talking to shops about the VAT on sanitary products, and I think we could still do lobbying of local shops on that.”
The Free Period Nottingham collect sanitary product donations on a monthly basis at Broadway Cinema and Homemade Café, and have donation points across the city.
“It’s sad we have to have these donations, but it’s also immensely pleasing how happy people are to donate,” said Claire.
And what options are there for people in the area to help fight the problem?
“If you are able to afford sanitary products, take them to food banks or us at the Women’s Centre,” said Helen.
Claire said: “If we’re talking about embarrassment as a reason not to help people, then I don’t buy that at all.
“I want people to talk about it, I want people to donate products, and I want people to feel good about themselves.”
The impact period poverty can have on women lasts their whole lives. 27 years later, it still affects Elizabeth even today.
She now has two daughters aged four and nine, and she has made sure that they have a good understanding of how periods work.
“My four-year-old once got out all my towels and stuck them all over the bathroom!” Elizabeth laughed.
She continued: “I look at my friends who went to college in their early twenties and think: ‘I wish I could have done that.’
“Period poverty is huge, even though it’s a really tiny factor, and we really need to change that.”
Claire said: “We need organisations to stand up – whether that’s doing workshops or events, we can open up that dialogue and have a bigger chance of reducing period poverty.
“And Nottingham… we’re the best place in the UK to do it.”
The Nottingham Women’s Centre is open for donations, and is located on Chaucer Street. You can also access the online page at: nottinghamwomenscentre.com
The Free Period Nottingham collect donations for Nottingham Women’s Centre, POW Nottingham, The Arches and Mansfield Food Bank. Facebook.com/freeperiodnottm
By Eve Smallman