The Shocking Ways Homeless Women Deal With Their Period

Instead of a tampon, imagine using paper towels -- or socks, toilet paper, leaves, or bark -- when you're bleeding from your vagina.

Periods aren't fun. Having one while you're homeless can be excruciating.

First of all, your period changes in response to stress and trauma, and living rough -- and, likely, the circumstances that caused you to be living rough -- is traumatic. So you don’t even know when the period that you don’t want to get is coming, and if you bleed through your clothes, there’s nowhere to wash them.

Then you need to actually get something to stem the flow. In a world where women’s needs were seen as basic human needs, tampons and pads would be as freely available as toilet paper. But this isn’t that world, and you need to either find a homeless service, steal them, or use whatever makeshift item you can: toilet paper, sponges, rags, dead leaves or bark.

Bianca, 21, holds a makeshift pad she's made from an odd sock and a layer of paper towels, held together by double-sided sticky tape. Photo: Gift Box Organic.

After that, you need to use it. Maybe you have access to a public bathroom -- in which case, you’re lucky. Changing a tampon inside a sleeping bag is also an option. Some public schools in remote communities don’t have bins in the bathrooms, so young girls aren’t sure what do to with a pad or tampon afterwards. Instead, they stay home from school.

Mooncups and other reusable products are absolutely out of the question. It’s partly an issue of hygiene; some women experiencing homelessness also have mental health issues that make personal hygiene a difficulty best not compounded by reusing a cup. If you're fighting an infection while using a Mooncup, it is impossible. That's not even addressing the question of where you're supposed to empty it. The public bathroom sink? Behind a bush?

All of this is on top of not getting enough sleep, dealing with the ongoing trauma of not having a home, possibly not having a great diet, constantly being vigilant, maybe dealing with mental health issues or even PTSD from a violent family situation, as 24 percent of the homeless population have experienced.

Periods are still stigmatised in society, which has a huge and harmful impact on already vulnerable women. Photo: Gift Box Organic.

More than 1.1 million women in Australia live in poverty and struggle to afford sanitary products each month.

At the most vulnerable end of that are the 85,000 women accessing homeless services each year, about a quarter of whom are young women and girls aged 12 to 24.

The shame, embarrassment, fear, worry, and anxiety about not being able to manage your period cause excess trauma to women in an already traumatic situation, according to Donna Stolzenberg, founder of the Melbourne Period Project.

"Forcing people to use inadequate products [like toilet paper] causes shame and stigma," she said.

This is why she started a service that provides women -- as well as trans men and non-binary people, but mostly women -- with pads, tampons, liners, anti-bacterial wipes and disposable bags.

It's a "worry-free approach to periods."

Boxes of tampons ready to be distributed to women in need. Photo: Alex Bruce-Smith

The most popular pack is the 'Poppy Pack', which includes pads and extras only. Plenty of cultures don't allow for the insertion of tampons, and Stolzenberg's method of providing only products that will be used means excess items aren't wasted.

It started as a collection service, gathering donated sanitary items and delivering them to organisations or directly to people who needed them.

But a new partnership with Gift Box Organic -- an enterprise which donates a box of tampons for every one bought -- means that MPP is able to employ women experiencing homelessness to pack boxes, as well as tap into an ongoing source of supplied tampons. Pads are coming soon.

Workers pack a box of Gift Box Organic tampons. Photo: Alex Bruce-Smith

In 18 months, GBO has managed to donate over 175,000 tampons, said its founder Saskia Hampele, a former Neighbours star who's currently shooting ABC's new drama The Heights.

"I'm never going to solve homelessness but I can solve women having tampons," she said.

Donna Stolzenberg and Saskia Hampele in Melbourne. Photo: Alex Bruce-Smith.

So far, Gift Box Organic is only available via subscription or one-off purchase online, but there's aims to get in stores in the near future.

It's still a small operation, but Hampele reckons that if they can get to the size of even just the smaller sanitary products companies in Australia, they'd be donating "millions" of tampons.

"And then, we might just solve the problem."

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The author of this piece traveled to Melbourne courtesy of GBO.