As a bloke, the aisle in the supermarket with sanitary products is the kind of place I’d usually try to avoid.
But as the manager of Bestwood and Bulwell Foodbank, a charity that provides three day emergency food and support to people in crisis in Nottingham, I have been forced to overcome my queasiness about periods. This is a serious issue that men shouldn’t feel embarrassed talking about.
It was at the foodbank that I met Rebecca. We were chatting over a cup of tea when I suddenly remembered that we had been donated some sanitary towels and tampons. I asked if she’d find some helpful and to my shock, she burst into tears.
She confessed that because she couldn’t afford sanitary towels, she had been using torn up newspaper instead.
I’ve spoken to dads who are asking on behalf of their teenage daughters for sanitary products, and also to a new dad asking for maternity pads for his wife who had given birth just a few days earlier. Speaking to other foodbank managers in The Trussell Trust network, I’ve heard similarly stark stories: people using socks, and even of women’s underwear being soaked through because they were using toilet roll, which wasn’t good enough as a replacement.
It’s natural that the first thing anyone thinks to donate to a foodbank is food – and those donations are absolutely vital to our ability to offer emergency support to people. But food isn’t the only thing that’s helpful. When people come to us, in desperate straits, it’s not just food they’re short of, but also basic products – things like deodorant, shampoo, sanitary towels.
Something that has really stuck with me is what Rebecca said it was like to need to use a foodbank. She told me the worst bit actually wasn’t so much the hunger, it wasn’t so much the cold when you can’t afford to heat your house or take a hot bath. It was the basic lack of dignity that went with that. It was doing humiliating things like using newspaper, or a sock, when it was the wrong time of the month because she couldn’t afford anything more.
People sometimes ask me how I know people are genuine, how I know people aren’t abusing the system. One reason is that we work with over seventy local organisations and professionals who refer to us. Most people we help only need to come to the foodbank once, and then they’re back on their feet and out of crisis.
But I think the most powerful way to answer this question is to tell people about who I’ve met, about Rebecca. Think about it. Do you think a woman who cries when offered sanitary towels at a foodbank is in anything other than a desperate, humiliating situation? Do you think she’s come to the foodbank for any other reason than there’s nowhere else to turn?
The scary thing is that this could happen to anyone. For you or me, hitting rock bottom and not being able to provide even the most basic things for yourself and your family, could be only two pay checks away. And it’s not just sanitary towels. We were recently able to offer a man going into hospital for an operation a razor. It doesn’t sound much, but I can’t put the look of relief on his face into words. He had been so worried that he would have to ask a nurse to shave him, and because someone had thought to donate a razor, he would no longer need to ask. Whenever the public donate things like toiletries, sanitary products, and toilet roll, it makes a huge difference to people who simply can’t stretch to cover those extra costs.
No one should be worrying that they can’t afford shampoo to wash their hair before a job interview; no one should be worrying that the newspaper they’re using as a sanitary towel might leak. No one should have to resort to these sorts of measures in the UK today.
That’s why I’m so pleased to hear that tax on tampons and sanitary products could be scrapped – a decision that makes such necessary items more affordable is only a positive step.
But, and this is the vital part, if you don’t have enough money to pay for food, you won’t have enough to pay for sanitary products, however affordable they may be. What the government’s decision does mean is that it’s now more affordable for people to donate sanitary products to foodbanks, so that when women are hit by something like redundancy or illness, they don’t have to go through what Rebecca did. Let’s celebrate the scrapping of the tampon tax by donating sanitary items so that everyone gets to benefit.