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Why the tampon tax matters to homeless women

For those without a roof over their heads, periods are a nightmare – one made a lot worse by sanitary products being called a ‘luxury’ product

If you can’t pull together enough money for some food for that evening, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to afford tampons or sanitary products. If you don’t have a roof over your head, it’s even less likely you’ll be equipped when the month comes around again. Periods are an inconvenience for women. For homeless women, they’re a nightmare. 

While shelters get an allowance every year to buy items like condoms, somehow there is no allowance for sanitary products. Women don’t choose to have a period but somehow the government haven’t caught up with that. Earlier this year, the plight of homeless women on their period garnered some attention thanks to The Homeless Period, who launched a petition for the government to give homeless shelters money to buy these products for women. Unfortunately the situation hasn’t improved.

This week the tampon tax - which absurdly dictates that sanitary products are taxed at five per cent as they are considered a “luxury” product – has been a serious topic of debate. It goes without saying that sanitary products shouldn’t be regarded as a luxury when as they are absolutely essential to us living our lives every month. While most of the coverage of this issue has rightly shown up the tax to be problematic, not enough focus, if any, has been put on how much the tax affects homeless women and their ability to access the vital products.

One woman concerned about this is Hayley Smith, founder of Flow Aid, a campaign working to provide free sanitary products to homeless women. She’s angered by the ruling not to remove the tax and the repercussions this has for those without money and a home. We spoke to Smith about the problem women face on the streets and how the tampon tax perpetuates the issue.

Dazed: What is it like to be homeless and on your period?

Hayley Smith: I set up Flow Aid this year after reading an article about the plight of homeless women on their periods and the lack of availability of sanitary products for homeless women. It was something that I had never really considered. One of the sentences that really struck me was that homeless women were being forced to go to McDonalds and stuff used tissues down their knickers, which is horrific. It’s bad enough being on the streets without having to deal with that every month. I can’t relate to that personally, but the piece really affected me; I genuinely thought I have to do something about this.

I suffer myself from polycystic ovaries and endometriosis and I know what it does to periods (it can greatly increase duration and frequency of periods, as well as making them irregular) and there are plenty of homeless women who have this. These women are on the streets already with poor hygiene and poor access to medication and sanitary products can lead to illness. They’re more at risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome a rare but life-threatening bacterial infection, usually brought on by leaving tampons in too long. It’s just an absolute nightmare.

Where can these women access sanitary products?

Hayley Smith: There are some places women can access them at shelters. But a lot of shelters don’t take them and many are staffed by male volunteers, so homeless women don’t feel comfortable asking men for such an intimate request so won’t use them. I set up Flow Aid to campaign for safe access to sanitary products helping charities and shelters because they have the infrastructure for distribution. But most of all, it’s to raise awareness that homeless women do have periods and this is an ongoing issue. These “luxury” items aren’t available to everyone.

Are the shelters only possibility for getting hold of them?

Hayley Smith: At the moment, yes. I don’t think there are any larger charities which give out sanitary products. There are larger campaigns that do it and they encourage women to donate sanitary products. The problem with that is that while people are accepting of receiving a packet of sanitary towels when they’re living on the streets, they’d rather have the money. And with the threat of living on the streets as a woman, it’s very difficult to find them. They hide, they cover themselves up, they stick to the back alleys. It’s very difficult to directly donate.

So how does the tampon tax affect homeless women?

Hayley Smith: Having the tampon tax removed means that the price would be lowered for sanitary products. They’d become more accessible. People would be more willing to donate them. When you’re paying a premium price for a product, you’re reluctant to do anything with them but use them. With the tax removed, it’d also be more feasible for charities to go out and buy them in bulk. 

And of course there’s the issue with semantics surrounding periods and that so-called luxury label given to sanitary products. 

Hayley Smith: A five per cent tax on an essential product is absolutely unnecessary. I believe that the government are hiding behind the EU to say their hands are tied. It’s not a coincidence the majority of men voted against removing the tax. I’m not blind to the reasons the tax wasn’t removed but I think that the justifications for it have raised more questions than they’ve answered. It’s clear when you look at what has zero tax and are considered non-luxury items – crocodile and ostrich meat, for example – what market this aims to benefit. I think it’s a horrible reminder of what happens when women aren’t at the top table and the need for more women policy makers. And incontinence products get zero tax too which makes no sense.

If it was well publicised that the tampon tax had been removed and that sanitary products were no longer seen as a “luxury” item, do you think that’d have a positive knock on effect for homeless women?

Hayley Smith: It would change ideas around sanitary products. It would change the perspective of periods themselves and change men’s view on them. We all have them, everyone knows that and yet men are still too scared to say the word. The removal of the tax would help remove that stigma and taboo surrounding tampons. It would be instant recognition that yes, women do need these products and they need them on a monthly basis.

My main concern is that the reluctance to even voting to open up a discussion and involving the EU officials is stopping it happening any time soon. I think there needs to be a change in attitude and more women in government for it to be put on the table again. The reactions, articles and petitions surrounding this at the moment have to keep on going. It can’t be another news story. This is an ongoing issue. Women are never going to stop having periods. It’s a sad fact that the products are only going to get more expensive. 

Are you considering mooncups as an option for homeless women?

Hayley Smith: They’re definitely a feasible option and we are looking into that. We’re also in discussions into a US company called Thinx who have created underwear with pads in them which are washable. But then you have the idea of a homeless woman walking into a public toilet and washing bloody knickers and cups. We need to work with shelters and charities to provide an infrastructure that creates an environment where women can do that comfortably, safely and quietly. We’re currently looking at walk-in centres to provide free products and things like that but it’s a long time coming.