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'Many homeless women feel too embarrassed to tell people they need sanitary products as it is still a taboo subject'

Women living in poverty can often lack these essential hygiene products - but a voluntary project in Belfast is helping to tackle the problem. Claire Williamson finds out more

Reaching out: Katrina McDonnell (left) and Nicole Madine
Reaching out: Katrina McDonnell (left) and Nicole Madine
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

It can be an uncomfortable monthly occurrence for anyone who has to experience it. But the nausea and cramps often associated with periods are usually soothed by hot water bottles, painkillers, curling up in a cosy bed and treating yourself.

Now imagine having none of those comforts - in fact, imagine not even having the bare essentials.

Indeed, as a result of period poverty, the harsh reality for many women is using a sock or toilet paper instead of menstrual products. And instead of having fresh clean pants, they have to wear the same underwear for the duration of their period.

This is a monthly happening for people who have found themselves in many disadvantaged situations, such as rough sleepers, people who live in homeless hostels, those who depend on food banks, victims of domestic violence and many more.

But an army of people, groups and charities is rallying to try and eradicate period poverty. And they are making strides by getting local councils on board to make menstrual products freely available in public toilets.

Among those making a difference is The Homeless Period Belfast.

It was started by Katrina McDonnell (26), from Belfast, in 2016 after she became aware of the problem when she was at university in Liverpool and saw the issues disadvantaged females were facing.

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Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast
Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast

When she came back home to Belfast, she quickly realised the same problems existed here.

"I had thought about donating clothes, shoes and things like that to the homeless," Katrina says.

"But I never considered that there would be vulnerable, disadvantaged women who wouldn't have access to essential menstrual items."

And she reveals how shocked she was to discover the extent of poverty that many people cope with.

"I contacted food banks and homeless shelters, and spoke to outreach teams, and found there were homeless people who had been using the likes of a sock and toilet rolls, doubling up in underwear, using the same item for the whole duration of their period or they had not been using anything at all," she says.

"I thought no woman should ever be in that situation and that's really how it was born."

Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast
Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast

The Homeless Period Belfast is a volunteer-led community project that aims to elevate the issue of period poverty throughout Belfast and beyond, and to reshape the conversation on periods.

Katrina didn't expect the project, which she runs along with Katie Bryce and Nicole Madine, to grow so quickly - but overnight, after setting up the Facebook page, it had 1,000 likes.

"It just went massive and was obviously something that really touched people - they felt really compelled to support the cause," she says.

Using their own money, the three women purchased pink bins and put them in public spaces throughout Belfast for the public to leave donations, including new pants, sanitary products, hygiene wipes, etc.

They then made up period packs and distributed them to people in need and organisations which could help.

Katrina explained that the impact of period poverty affects people both physically and emotionally. "It doesn't do anything for your self-esteem or your self-worth," she remarks.

"Our service users have been really positive and in the last few years, we've really raised awareness of the issue."

One of the main issues which they found was the perceived awkwardness that surrounded telling someone about their need.

And Katrina believes that one of the reasons period poverty exists is the lack of conversation on periods because it's still seen as a taboo subject. But it's something she feels is slowly being addressed.

Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast
Team effort: volunteers putting together period packs at The Homeless Period Belfast

"I know of three of our service users who, before the project existed, were using various refuges and shelters and these places didn't offer them the items," she says.

"They actually had the items, but the problem was that the women felt the conversation was too awkward and they didn't feel like they could approach hostel management to get them.

"Or some places didn't have the donations either.

"Since we've been able to provide the items and since we've started the conversations on periods, we've noticed more people are donating items to help with period poverty.

"And hostels and other places are actively addressing the issue and providing the items without any awkwardness."

Katrina told of one harrowing example of a service user who was a rough sleeper outside a shop and someone stopped but felt uncomfortable giving her money.

Important work: Katrina says there is still a stigma issue when women are asking for support
Important work: Katrina says there is still a stigma issue when women are asking for support

So they offered to buy her food, but she didn't have the confidence to say she actually needed tampons or sanitary towels.

"That was because of the embarrassment and shame and the lack of awareness associated with menstruation - and therein lies the issue," Katrina explains.

"Period taboo and stigma stopped her from getting help that evening. People are too ashamed to say that they are going without or they can't afford them. So it's just really trying to get the conversation out there that it is an issue. It is time that people started talking about it and doing something about it."

The Homeless Period Belfast works hard all year round and gets a huge response - but finds their Christmas campaign in particular, which has now ended, is inundated with donations.

"In 2019 we launched a Tummy Hugs appeal," Katrina adds.

"We were asking for donations of hot water bottles - that was a one-off and not something we'll continue throughout the year.

"But we did a bit of engagement with a disadvantaged youth group and they suggested the idea of hot water bottles for our Christmas period packs, because not only do they serve a purpose for when you have an uncomfortable period and you are in pain - they also help when it's cold.

"We just do a bit extra at Christmas and perhaps our period packs were a little fuller then due to more donations, but we create period packs all year round.

"For anyone wanting to donate now, all our collections have been done and we won't be collecting again until the end of January.

"We like to get our Christmas period packs done within the first two weeks of December, so they reach people in crisis or in need before Christmas.

"So any donations made now will be accepted and will make it into the packs in February."

Katrina feels that every woman should be able to access menstrual items for free in public toilets.

"We can go to any toilet, we can access free toilet roll for two bodily functions, we can also access free soap, hand towels, hand-dryers and my favourite one - the sanitary waste disposal bin," she says.

"But when half the population has a third bodily function, we are just told that we have to sort it out ourselves and makeshift something like toilet roll until we get home.

"I feel that women's health has been sidelined for way too long and it really should now - in 2020 - be the norm that these items are in toilets."

The Homeless Period Belfast team have been working with different councils across Northern Ireland on their Menstruation Matters campaign, which calls for the public and private sector to start providing free period and menstrual items in their toilets.

"Our vision of The Homeless Period Belfast isn't to grow, it's that it becomes redundant and obsolete and to cease to exist," Katrina states.

"We hope to do that through getting the Department of Health on board and through working with the local councils to provide these items.

"The vision is to get every council on board and we'll soon see free menstrual items in toilets."

However, Katrina says the success of their project is down to the generosity of those donating the items.

"It's nothing to do with me, it's all to do with the people of Belfast and beyond who have donated and volunteered," she explains.

"It reminds me of what a great place Belfast is and how they come together collectively to help people out."

For more information or to find out where to donate visit www.facebook.com/TheHomeless PeriodBelfast

‘A homeless woman was so desperate for sanitary towels that she stole some and was then arrested’

Katrina says: "A woman we support with period packs once found herself in a situation where she did not have any money for period products while she was rough sleeping.

She took her period unexpectedly one evening and had already used the little money she had to buy food.

She began asking passers-by for money, so that she could buy the sanitary towels, but unfortunately they either ignored her or they did not want to give her money. One person offered to go into the shop behind her to buy food, but she had already eaten and desperately needed towels instead.

She felt too embarrassed and ashamed to ask for sanitary towels; she couldn't get the words out of her mouth. Instead, she went without, leaked through, and eventually in desperation entered the shop and stole the items. She was later arrested.

What is less dignified? Stealing tampons or not having any at all? Many of the women and girls we support with period packs have resorted to using toilet roll, a sock, they've used the same item for longer than they should, or they haven't used anything at all.

The reality is that these items are an expense too far for some people who have to choose between buying food or buying tampons."

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