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"I skipped school when I had my period": life for women below the tampon line

A pilot project in Aberdeen aims to give sanitary products to those who can't afford them. 

When Kerry Wright was a teenager, she skipped school three or four days each month. She wasn’t skiving – she simply had her period, and her parents, struggling with addictions, didn’t provide her with sanitary products like tampons or towels. 

She didn’t tell the school why she was not coming in. “I was just a young girl,” she remembers. “My relationship with adults wasn’t great with my home life, so to go and speak to an adult about something so personal...” It took years for a school staff member to figure out the problem and put her in touch with the school nurse. 

Wright, from Aberdeen, is now a mum to teenagers herself and a volunteer at a local food bank run by Community Foods Initiatives North East. “I started volunteering and talking to young girls and realising it’s still an issue,” she says. “That’s why I feel really passionate about it.”

In July, CFine became the partner in a Scottish government project to provide free sanitary products to women on low incomes in Aberdeen. The £42,500 pilot is designed to reach at least a thousand women, as well as accommodating trans men and non-binary people who menstruate. It is also designed to help the government gather information for any future roll out. Wright is one of the CFine volunteers acting as advocates for the pilot. 

Awareness of “period poverty” - women below the tampon-affordability line - has grown in recent years, although Wright’s experience is testament to the fact it is nothing new. “I think it has got worse because everybody seems to be in more poverty than they were before,” says Kelly Donaldson, another CFine volunteer and pilot advocate. “It comes down to buying sanitary products or buying food for your children.” 

Women who can’t afford sanitary products have limited options – the volunteers have heard from teenage girls who scavenge loo paper from public toilets – and often end up confined to their home. For those negotiating the benefits system, or in insecure, low-paid work, this can have far-reaching consequences. “Some of our service users who come into the food bank have a whole host of other appointments,” says Wright. “But they aren’t going to be able to leave their house.”

Food banks can already hand out sanitary products to women who need them, but most are reliant on donations. What makes the pilot in Aberdeen stand out is the fact CFine now has guaranteed supplies. Crucially, CFine is providing reusable sanitary products, such as cups and washable towels.

For Wright, a single mum, the pilot is personal. “Since I started volunteering at CFine, I was able to get access to sanitary products,” she says. “I couldn’t afford it – I would stay in on those days, but now I come and volunteer. So I have definitely benefited.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left