How periods affect women’s chances of getting access to justice

Lack of menstruation care in police custody could lead to women accepting cautions because they need to change their tampons. 

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Earlier this year, the charity The Independent Custody Visiting Association released a report exposing the difficulties women in police custody have in accessing sanitary protection following arrest. They found that women on their periods were having to improvise with tissues and socks to stem menstrual flow, or were left to bleed out.

At best, this is embarrassing and degrading for women in an already frightening and stressful situation. 

At worst, anecdotal evidence from the ICVA suggested women could be accepting cautions in order to go home from custody so they can be clean, or use their own toilet to change their tampon.

Most women in police custody are held in tiled cells with a toilet and observed by CCTV. Women should be told that a pixelated area will cover the toilet on the CCTV footage. However, this advice isn’t always passed on – leading to women feeling deeply uncomfortable about changing their sanitary products. One woman in South Wales reported not using the toilet during her stay in custody, because she was not informed the CCTV feed was pixelated.

“We’ve heard anecdotal stores of that happening,” Police and crime commissioner and ICVA chair, Martyn Underhill, told me over the phone, referring to women forgoing legal protection to get out of custody as quickly as possible. “And it wouldn’t surprise me. We know menstruation is a massive part of a female’s life. If you’re feeling dirty you would take your quickest option out which may be a caution.”

Underhill was “absolutely staggered” when he learnt that women in police custody were being left to bleed out with little or no access to sanitary protection. “Custody centres are traumatic places anyway,” he told me, “without debasing somebody so much they can’t keep themselves clean.”

"This impacts on justice for women," he continued. "The implications of this aren’t just about hygiene. It is impacting on our justice system and fairness.”

However, change is happening – and the recognition of women's specific needs in police custody will soon be recognised in legislation. 

Since the ICVA's initial report, the Home Office is reviewing the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) codes and legislation to recognise that women in custody have specific needs, in an effort to make sure every woman gets the menstrual care and dignity she requires. In a statement, former home secretary Amber Rudd explained “I was absolutely clear as home secretary that changes needed to be made to guarantee women’s access to sanitary protection and associated privacy.”

Further, on Monday the College of Policing updated their existing national guidance to better reflect the needs of female detainees. Libby Potten, the policing standards manager for criminal justice at the college, told me the new guidelines include “specific guidance that custody officers and staff should give ‘special consideration’ to the needs of detainees who are menstruating – including ensuring they have access to menstrual products and associated privacy”.

I met with ICVA CEO Katie Kempen outside a cafe in Victoria. She took a pair of paper pants, a thin sanitary napkin and a wet wipe out of a plastic bag and laid them on the cafe table.

“When it’s working well, this is what women are given,” she explained to me. “When a woman arrives in police custody, she should be pro-actively offered a feminine hygiene pack. Paper pants, so not much dignity there. And a really, really thin sanitary towel. It's not good.” 

“The average stay in police custody is about nine hours,” Kempen said. “You can just about muddle through with this kit for that long. But it can be much longer than that. If a woman is arrested on Friday and there’s no court until Monday, she could be left in a real mess.”

There are legitimate concerns from custody staff that tampons or towels could be used by high-risk women to self-harm. This is of course a hugely important issue for women following arrest. Many women arriving in police detention are intensely vulnerable and may be suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.

However, while Kempen is quick to point out if a woman is extremely at risk then there is good reason not to give her sanitary protection, she is also keen to emphasise that being left to bleed out into paper pants can also have a negative impact on a woman’s mental health.

“We try and balance it out,” she told me. “You want to get people out of the door completely safe. But at the same time, if you strip them of their dignity while they’re in custody, and a woman has a traumatic experience, then they might be physically safe walking out the door, only to be emotionally traumatised by what has just happened.”

Having a dignified and healthy experience in police custody is not only key to protecting women’s mental health. It helps vulnerable women who have been arrested but are experiencing abuse or exploitation to feel confident about asking the police for help – either when in custody or later on down the line.

“But how could we expect women to talk about sexual violence or domestic abuse, if we aren’t even giving them menstrual care and affording them pretty basic dignity?” Kempen asks.

Kempen is emphatic that the forces that get it right are doing a great job. Thames Valley, for example, is leading the way in providing women in detention with a choice of tampons. But a lack of understanding of women’s needs in a male-dominated space means that some women have been losing out and suffering as a result.

The lack of knowledge about women’s health stems from a wider societal stigma around periods. While lots of the services people get in police custody are widely consulted on – from mental health support to food to toothbrush provision – gender and menstrual care have long been ignored.

Worse, there has been no recognition that women have specific needs which should be addressed when in police custody.

“It’s a male-dominated environment, run by men, and some of the custody sergeants just didn’t know about tampons and towels,” Kempen told me. “If you’ve never had to buy sanitary protection and no one has ever told you, you aren’t going to know what women need. And of course, the women often feel they are not in a position to complain.”

Underhill agrees. “Women shouldn’t have to ask for menstruation support – this should come from men and it’s men’s mindsets we now need to change,” he said. “We need to make it so people can talk openly about tampons and wipes and bleeding.”

Updates to PACE and the police college are crucial to improving female detainees’ rights. PACE isn’t just a set of guidelines or recommendations – it’s a change in legislation. And while that change may take a while to filter through to different forces, it helps to guarantee women’s dignity and safety when in police custody.

“Dignity and privacy is a human rights issue,” Kempen told me. “We are a civilised society and there is no need for this current situation. It benefits nobody for people not to get menstrual care. This is a systemic problem that needs a national response – and now we’re getting it.”

This piece was written following research conducted as part of the Ben Pimlott writer in residence programme at Birkbeck University. 

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.