By GABRIELLA JOUSTRA
Getting through every day difficult enough for someone who is homeless. Add menstruation to the burden and it gets even worse.
The cost of female hygiene products and the difficulty of dealing with periods while living on the street is a major problem for homeless women.
• It's time to talk about periods: the taboo around menstruation
Homelessness services say many women who are homeless or have financial problems have difficulty affording feminine sanitary products such as pads and tampons and turn to shelters and crisis centres for help.
They say that on a limited income, women will naturally prioritise shelter and food over everything else. Some women resort to using socks or hand towels to deal with their periods.
This can cause discomfort, health issues and lower self-esteem if women cannot change or keep clean. However they say that removing GST would make sanitary products more affordable.
Adrian Barker, assistant program manager and social worker at the Crisis Contact Centre says that the cost of sanitary products can be a problem for many women experiencing homelessness.
There were almost 10,000 women experiencing homelessness in Victoria 2011, making up about 43 per cent of homeless individuals.
He says the Crisis Contact Centre assists people with housing as well as providing material aid such as sanitary products. “It really surprised me how expensive they are to buy, even in bulk, which gives us a reminder of the impost of women living on a really limited income.”
Barker says that many of their contacts are classified as homeless if they live in unstable housing. For example, Barker says that boarding houses can cost up to 70 or 80 per cent of a Newstart payment, meaning it becomes harder to buy basic necessities.
Barker also believes that GST on sanitary products is an absolute disgrace. “I can imagine that paying 10 per cent on GST and your income is $200 a week, you're paying a hell of a lot more proportionately than you do if your income is $2000 a week. So I think it's grossly unfair.”
Furthermore, he says the Budget cuts by the Federal Government to emergency relief will reduce the capacity for emergency services to provide assistance. At the moment the Crisis Contact Centre can provide $60 a person a year.
“It’s a tiny drop, and then actually it's being significantly cut beyond that. That distresses us, stresses us because we know the impact it's going to have on people who come through our front door.”
Dr Julia Driscoll, a general practitioner at Apple Tree Medical, says this can be a particular problem when menstruation flow is heavy.
“It’s probably that some women have these heavy periods where you’re saturating your pads or tampons in an hour, it can get very expensive.”
There are a number of services around Melbourne that provide showers, washing machines and sanitary products. For example, Sacred Heart Mission Women’s House (a women-only space), Anglicare Victoria, and the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation among others.
Another relative newcomer is the Melbourne Period Project, which collects donations to provide sanitary products. The organisation One Voice has just provided a mobile shower bus for Melbourne, which also helps with hygiene products.
Outreach worker for the Fr Bob Maguire Foundation, Monique Warshall says the women she works with have been known to use socks or hand towels during their period because both the women and the foundation were unable to afford enough sanitary products.
However, makeshift cloth pads are accompanied with the problem of how to clean the cloth, Warshall says. “For instance, in Acland St there's a sort of park with a little fountain, and they're washing them in that, but with no soap, because they don't have the soap.”
“So they're getting urinary tract infections, bladder infections, some of them are getting skin infections because they're not cleaning themselves properly, and then they're getting their period, they're getting skin infections around that area, due to lack of cleaning and being able to look after themselves” she says.
Keeping clean and accessing toilets are other common problems for the women she works with. “For a male it's easier for them to go behind a tree and go to the toilet, whereas for a female it's really not that easy. Especially when you're menstruating, it's not a thing you can do,” she says.
Warshall says women will sleep near petrol stations or parks so they can use the toilet in the morning, however, this will be their only toilet-stop for the day. Warshall is also a drug, alcohol and domestic violence therapist. She says many women she works with have low self-esteem because they cannot keep themselves clean.
“I mean for women, especially, we pride ourselves on keeping ourselves clean, and that’s one way that maintaining hygiene is the key to kind of recovering the sense of self,” she says.
Cleanliness is also important to for employability. “The way that you present yourself, your physical appearance, that’s one of the first things that people will look at when you walk into a room. For the women who can't get that pride, in terms of getting themselves clean, and having the facilities to get themselves ready, I would say it would have various effects on being able to get employment.”
When Sophie Liley was elected women’s officer for the Women’s Guild at the University of Western Australia in 2013, she started the petition Axe the Tampon Tax.
Using puns such as “It’s a bloody outrage”, the petition went viral.
However, behind the quips was an important issue: in 2000 the Australian government decided to include feminine sanitary products in GST, making it a “luxury item”.
Items not included in GST are basic foods, such as bread, milk and eggs, as well as medical items such as condoms, lubricants and incontinence supplies.
When the issue was first brought up in 2000, then health minister Dr Michael Wooldridge compared feminine sanitary products to shaving cream. “Well, condoms prevent illness. I wasn't aware that menstruation was an illness,” he said.
However, Liley says taxing a necessary hygiene product for a biological process women cannot control is unethical and unfairly disadvantages women.
Periods are estimated to cost women about $19,000 from menarche to menopause, and with 10 per cent GST, women pay about $1000 more than men in tax, based on the cost of feminine hygiene products.
Liley’s campaign gathered more than 45,000 signatures however no member of Parliament took up the challenge to get the Bill passed and the petition fell flat.
However, this year Sydney student Subeta Vimalarajah started a similar petition. So far she has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, and provoked more than 11,000 submissions to the better tax review.
On May 25, Vimalarajah asked then federal treasurer Joe Hockey live on Q&A: “Mr Hockey, do you think that sanitary products are an essential health good for over half the population?”
Hockey replied that he thought feminine sanitary products were essential and that GST should be removed from the product.
He said he would "raise it with the states at the next meeting of treasurers in July”.
However, in August, Mr Hockey said the tampon tax would stay, after state and federal treasurers failed to come to the unanimous agreement that is required to remove them from the GST list.
The tampon tax became an issue across France and Britain late this year with marches and protests against taxes on sanitary products. The EU is considering an application from Britain to end the tax, as part of its major review of EU tax rules due next year. In late November, Change.org got behind a petition on the issue.
Canada withdrew the tax on these items in May this year.
Access Health is a primary health clinic aimed at the most vulnerable people in Melbourne. Duty social worker at Access Health Kate Ogilvie says living conditions, poor nutrition and opiate drug use can affect or stop women’s periods.
“I think the situations, especially sex working or homeless on the street, it’s a stressful environment to be in and that can affect the period," she says.
"When you have a chaotic life it's hard to keep track of what your health issues are, so even if there are certain issues, it's not necessarily a clear history. There are other factors which can be causing the different things that could be happening in a women's body at a particular time.”
However, she says that for many women, their periods are not their most pressing concern. Women who are sleeping rough can even be so stressed that their periods stop.
Diet and nutrition can also affect the menstrual cycle. “In cases where people are very underweight, that may cause them to be more irregular in their cycle. And also people who don’t eat so well are more likely to become anaemic if they’re not having sufficient iron in their diet,” she says.
Heavy periods can be caused by a number of reasons, including hormonal disorders or sexual transmitted illnesses.
Warshall says how other people treat homeless women can also affect their self-esteem.
“I know that when I’m in a social group that I can see straight away with friends and peers, the minute that they see them, the stigma attached, they want to stay away from them and obviously they look at them as if they're dangerous or pester them or going to be abusive in some way,” she says.
Women experiencing homelessness also have to deal with the stigma attached to menstruation. Warshall says many of her younger clients are reluctant to come up to her to ask for sanitary products, but as one of the only women working at Fr Bob’s, she often deals with female-related issues.
Psychology professor Joan C. Chrisler says ignorance of menstruation and reproductive processes is caused by stigmatisation, in her article Teaching Taboo Topics: Menstruation, Menopause, and the Psychology of Women, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Products or ideas associated with the stigmatisation become tainted, meaning actions like buying pads or tampons becomes embarrassing and people are not willing to talk about menstruation.
The way that women are viewed also changes during menstruation.
“[A] study of stereotypes of women in different hormonal conditions showed that menstruating women were viewed as less sexy, more impure, and more irritable than women in general,” Chrisler says.
Reluctance to associate with menstruation reinforces the stigma and continues ignorance and discrimination.
While ultimately unsuccessful, Liley says the biggest selling point of the Axe the Tax petition was the humour.
“We made a joke about it, like, ‘it’s time to end the tampon tax, period’, or ‘there’s no womb in society for the tampon tax’ and all these period-related puns that got people to be able to talk about really delicate taboo issues, in a funny way that they felt comfortable in engaging with.”
Getting people to engage with the issue was an important step in the petition, and Liley thinks that the same needs to happen with homeless women, as homelessness and menstruation are both uncomfortable topics.
“Because no one likes talking about periods and no one likes talking about homeless people which means homeless people with periods are like the lowest down the list of things to have a conversation about over the dinner table.”