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Period poverty: The women forced to choose between food and sanitary products

Choosing between food and sanitary products is not a choice any woman wants to face.

But homeless and vulnerable women have told ITV News Central that's exactly what's happening to them.

Among the women accessing services at SIFA Fireside in Birmingham, a charity which helps homeless and vulnerably-housed people, is Natalie White.

An abusive relationship forced her onto the streets, and she slept rough for two years. It means she knows first-hand the unique challenges faced by women struggling to get by.

She used to have to make the choice between buying food, or buying sanitary products.

I was going into shops to rob [my sanitary products] when I was homeless. Going into shops, robbing it.

Because… it’s desperate measures. I’ve been there, done it. I used to eat out of bins.

And you’ve got people going, ‘how do they shower’? They’re using McDonald’s toilets.

– Natalie White

SIFA Fireside welcomes around 160 people each day, giving them shelter, a hot meal - and for women, free access to towels and tampons.

Natalie White revealed her experience of living on the streets. Credit: ITV News Central

So-called period poverty is a growing problem among homeless women and those on low incomes, and overcoming the taboo of talking about periods is part of the challenge.

Kathy Mayer, another of SIFA’s long-term visitors, said embarrassment played a big part in preventing women asking for help.

“I myself am a very clean person, and I think one of the most awful things is that you haven’t got proper facilities and proper things,” she said.

“I think that’s awful because it’s very depressing and very embarrassing.”

A campaign has now been launched by students at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston, raising awareness, money and donations.

Students at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston have launched a campaign to tackle period poverty. Credit: ITV News Central

They’ve already raised more than £400, as well as as dozens of boxes of donated towels and tampons.

Zahra Asif, one of the students behind the scheme, said the response had been “overwhelming”.

“We thought we’d only get maybe a couple of bags - but we’ve had so many from students, teachers, and from the boys’ school next door too,” she said.

I wasn’t even really aware of period poverty until a couple of months ago, when I began reading reports about how there are girls using towels and tissues, and socks, instead of actual sanitary products.

It’s horrifying that some women don’t have the same access that I do, and my friends do.

It’s unfair that they can’t afford sanitary products because it’s something that 52% of the population are going to experience, yet if they can’t afford them they’re just suffering in silence.

– Zahra Asif
Zahra Asif is one of the students heading up the campaign. Credit: ITV News Central

Principal Ann Clark has given the campaign her full backing - and said they are now hoping it helps raise awareness of other issues too.

“We should be looking at VAT on sanitary products and maybe girls on free school meals, maybe they should be provided sanitary products free,” she said.

“There are issues around some girls who won’t go to school during their period because they can’t have adequate sanitary protection, which shouldn’t be the case in this country - to have something like this affecting girls’ education.

“I’m hoping, more broadly, that politicians will stop and take notice and there will be more campaigning around this issue.”