When faced with a choice between buying food for their children or tampons for themselves, the four mothers I am talking to in an Aberdeen food bank all say they will deprive themselves, with no hesitation.
It can be humiliating and messy, but they say they will make do with wads of tissue. Other women will improvise with rags, or even socks held in place with sticky tape.
“It’s a real choice for lots of women to have to make,” says Kerry Wright, a single mother of three children. “You’ll just be praying that your period doesn’t start at the stage in the month when there isn’t much food in the cupboard.”
Period poverty is something Wright, 35, has endured ever since she started menstruating as a teen and she is determined to prevent her own daughter having the same experiences. “I have four sisters and our parents were addicts so they didn’t care about making sure we had things for our periods – we would use toilet roll and we’d often miss school for a few days every month,” she says. “For the same thing to be happening 20 years down the line just doesn’t seem right.”
But for the next six months, women in Aberdeen on low incomes will have access to free sanitary products, due to what’s believed to be the world’s first government-backed scheme to tackle period poverty.
The £42,500 pilot, funded by the Scottish government, is being run by the Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE), a food bank and social enterprise. It will partner with local charities and target the city’s seven regeneration areas, to reach at least 1,000 women.
Scottish National party MSP Angela Constance, cabinet secretary for communities, social security and equalities, says there has been growing political interest in the issue and that food banks, women’s groups and student organisations have all put forward their concerns.
“We want to test the best way forward and look for a dignified, sensitive but very practical solution to this issue because it’s unacceptable that any woman or girl should be unable to access what is an essential item,” she says. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about menstruation and as a society we need to be better at talking about subjects considered to be taboo.”
Period poverty is a very private struggle for women throughout the UK and quantifying its extent has been hard. Constance says the valuation data collected by CFINE will be used to make the case for a nationwide rollout of free sanitary provision.
Kelly Donaldson, who has two sons and a daughter, says: “There will be one less thing for women to worry about – for the next six months at least”. She explains that the summer holidays can be particularly fraught, because money has to be found for the meals her children usually get free at school.
“I think the problem of period poverty will get worse because life has got tougher for folk around here – the government is cutting benefits left, right and centre and thrown people’s lives into chaos.”
Over a woman’s lifetime, sanitary products cost more than £5,000, with women spending around £13 every month. Labour reduced VAT on sanitary products from 17.5% to 5% in 2000 but said it could not go any further under EU rules. To stave off a backbench rebellion in March last year, David Cameron persuaded European ministers to agree to change the rules to allow zero-rating, but the earliest that could be implemented is 2018. In the meantime, his chancellor, George Osborne, promised to spend £15m from the so-called tampon tax on women’s charities. This March, the latest tranche of grants took the total to £17m, but the scheme has been heavily criticised for making women fund support charities such as domestic violence refuges and for helping an anti-abortion group. The SNP has long called for the abolition of the “unfair” tax. Last month, Tesco became the first UK supermarket to effectively remove the VAT by cutting the price of many women’s sanitary products.
Donaldson and Wright both volunteer at CFINE which gives out more than 800 emergency food parcels each month. According to CFINE chief executive Dave Simmers, demand has almost tripled since 2014. Before the pilot, women couldn’t rely on sanitary products being included in their emergency parcels because the food bank can only distribute what people donate.
“The implementation of welfare reform has taken a terrible toll on families who are already up against it and on terribly low incomes,” he says. “Struggling to afford sanitary products is just another burden for low-income women – who are normally the ones taking care of everyone else too.”
He believes the debate around the tampon tax has helped to generate awareness of period poverty and kickstart action to put an end to it.
More than three-quarters of people who use CFINE’s food bank are men, but partnering with other agencies should help the pilot to reach more of the city’s vulnerable women. This includes as many as 300 mothers and daughters via the Aberdeen branch of Home-Start, a charity which makes home visits to vulnerable families with young children.
Cathy Beattie, team leader at Home-Start, says there is definitely a need out there, but that the problem has been hard to quantify because it isn’t a natural talking point for the parents they are helping to keep out of crisis.
“This pilot is going to get people talking: some of the parents we see can’t afford nappies and basics like milk – so those are the things they prioritise asking for because they put their children’s needs first,” she explains. Free sanitary products are always quietly taken whenever they are put among the nappies and food supplies on offer at the Friday morning parent and toddler group.
A few minutes drive away is the Tillydrone Community Flat, where local residents – some of the very poorest in Aberdeen – come for services including a creche, a small food bank, adult education classes, welfare advocacy and drug and alcohol counselling. Fiona Dallas, a development worker there, says she is angry about the way women are disproportionately affected by the austerity cuts and has already identified several women and girls who could be helped by the pilot.
“If you have two teenage daughters plus yourself, that’s a lot of money to spend on sanitary products and you have to be very brave to ask for them at a food bank, when even asking for food is embarrassing,” she says. “The number of women who use food banks is very low – they have fears about being seen to be a bad mother who is unable to feed her kids. They worry social services will get involved.”
Dallas imagines that there are women who are missing benefit appointments and GP appointments because they don’t have sanitary protection. “If you get very heavy periods it could be a real deterrent for women going out – there is so much stigma around it too,” she says. “I’ve been annoyed for years about the tampon tax – if the government wanted to get rid of it they could have done it years ago, but they’ve chosen not to.”
With the need so apparent, why has it taken this long for action to be taken at a government level?
Monica Lennon, the Labour backbench MSP for central Scotland, has been promoting the issue since winning her seat in May 2016 and believes it hasn’t been high on the agenda because women have been under-represented in the places where decisions are taken.
“It will always be argued that there are more pressing issues to tackle but this is fundamental to women’s human rights,” she says. She would like to see a bolder commitment from the Scottish government. “It’s a welcome start but I think we can be more ambitious when we know it’s a problem in every community today.”
No decision yet has been made about the eligibility criteria under a potential rollout of the pilot. But Lennon is concerned that if it involves means-testing it would leave no safety net for people who might need help when life throws up unexpected challenges. She will launch a members bill consultation this month, proposing a universal provision scheme, similar to the NHS C-card, which offers young people free condoms in many parts of the UK.
Lennon would also like it to become a statutory requirement for free sanitary products to be provided in schools, colleges and universities. This has already been embraced by South Lanarkshire College in East Kilbride, which began offering free tampons and pads to students and staff in January and plans to install free sanitary product dispensers in toilets throughout the college.
At Sussex University the student union has been giving away free sanitary products one afternoon a month for several years as part of its free periods campaign sponsored by Natracare. It also promotes more sustainable reusable cups that can last a number of years, but that many women don’t know about. CFINE is also trying to raise awareness of reusable sanitary products, including washable towels, by recruiting women to test them and give feedback to the Scottish government.
Back in Aberdeen, Wright and Donaldson have completed the forms for themselves and their daughters to take part in the CFINE pilot. They say the staff and volunteers at the food bank usually talk about politics, but now it’s non-stop periods. “The more we all talk about periods and period poverty, the better – men included,” says Wright. “This is a basic necessity we need in order to get on with our lives.”
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