"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. 

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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.