Getting through a tricky period
Caroline Varney-Bowers talks about a simple scheme introduced at Norfolk libraries to help tackle period poverty amongst women on low income or benefits, those who happen to be homeless, but also girls of school age who may be forced to miss school.
It was a social media video highlighting the plight of homeless women coping with their periods while living on the streets that sparked the idea for The Tricky -Period service in Norfolk libraries.
I chatted to friends and colleagues about ways of helping women in this situation. One of them suggested developing something within my role as a Community Librarian for Norfolk Library and Information Service. This is how we came up with The Tricky Period - a service which would provide sanitary protection to women for free, no questions asked.
While reading around the subject, I found that the issue of period poverty was not solely an issue for homeless women, but also women on low incomes and benefits. Shockingly, it included girls of school age and could even be responsible for increased levels of truancy. Period poverty was an issue for all menstruating woman with limited money.
One story was particularly moving and I find myself telling it whenever I explain the service to someone new. It was about a school girl whose mother was only able to provide her with one sanitary pad to last the whole school day. This wasn't only about the inconvenience and embarrassment of leaking blood onto your clothes, but also about longer term health issues.
The Tricky Period
Colleagues helped to develop a proposal for this new service and suggested names. "The Tricky Period" was selected as it implied a hopefully temporary situation and did not shy away from using the word "period".
The project is simply a redistribution of sanitary products donated by those who are able to afford more, for those who cannot afford any. The public library service is the facilitator.
The main objectives are to:
- improve the health of all women who struggle to afford sanitary products
- reduce the instances of girls missing school due to period related truancy.
The right place?
Why would a public library be the right place for this? As yet, no one has asked this question, but we were expecting it so we asked it ourselves and these were the key reasons why we are the right place for this.
The health element of the Universal Offer suggests public libraries should "contribute to the health and wellbeing of local communities".
I feel that our Tricky Period offer promotes and enables key health partnerships in out library in the following ways:
- libraries are non-judgemental, safe,
neutral, accessible and centrally located
- it enables interaction with customers which can facilitate signposting to other services
- we are building links with local services for women
- we are responding to a need within our local community
- we are helping to reduce instances of period-related truancy.
Within Norfolk Libraries, the Tricky Period project supports many of Norfolk County Council's aims, including:
- supporting vulnerable people
- excellence in education (by reducing period related truancy)
- safer and stronger communities
- encouraging healthy lifestyles and contributing to mental and physical wellbeing.
So what did we do?
Six weeks before the launch, we sent out a plea for donations on social media. While the initial donations were arriving, we developed publicity leaflets, order forms, evaluation forms, a record sheet, staff guidelines and a logo.
All of these things, and the recruitment of a dedicated Tricky Period Volunteer, have been key in getting this service off the ground and helping the community in a very short space of time.
Lex Barber, our Tricky Period Volunteer, said: "I'm the Volunteer Project Coordinator for The Tricky Period and have been in post about two months now. Like everyone else who hears about the initiative, I thought it was brilliant and wanted to get more involved. Having volunteered with homeless and vulnerable communities for about nine years, I thought I could help by bridging the gap between the library service and those who need the products on offer - making sure those who may need the service know about it.
"Within just eight weeks we're already in a position where community groups, refuges and interested parties are contacting us, showing just how needed this service really is.
"Yet it's not a lot of effort for me to put in to see results! I spend about an hour a week at the library sorting through donations, dishing them out and packing them up, and an hour or so from home each week managing phone calls and emails from interested parties and other libraries.
"There's really no qualifications, bar a little bit of free time, needed to volunteer to help and it provides such an important service. I've already been nicknamed 'The Period Lady'… so we're clearly making [crimson] waves around Norwich!"
We realised the response would be favourable after our first post on Facebook. We received a phone call about donations within two minutes. After a week, we found the post had been shared 447 times, and even now, a few months on the original post is still being shared and talked about.
Donations poured in from the outset and now four months along from the initial "ask" we are still getting two or three carrier bags of donations each week.
The take up from individuals coming directly to the library for supplies has been steadily increasing but was not as high as we first expected. We did however expect it to take a little while for the word to get around and for people to overcome their initial embarrassment.
Within a couple of weeks we developed our additional offer where we supply products to local community groups who approach us so they can give directly to the women they work with. We know that this relationship will create a dialogue with these groups and allow us to develop greater opportunities for partnership work. We also hope that these women will move on to independently coming to the library for items and to make use of our other services.
One of these groups we are now
regularly supplying with sanitary
products, the Magdalene Group (which runs services for woman such as the Doorway service) told us:
"The women at the Doorway Women's Service have been able to access the stock provided by Tricky Period at our office. The women have said that being able to access sanitary products that they find expensive and hard to budget for due to low income, has made a massive difference to them. The women feel that they now do not have to worry about their period each month and how they will afford tampons/pads as they are able to collect these from Doorway.
"Tricky Period has provided the women with sanitary products that have allowed them to continue with their day to day lives without worry about how they will be able to find the funds each month."
- Lesley, Project Worker
Need for the service
So far there has been no negativity towards the service and no questions of why a public library is offering this service, although many have been shocked that in modern day Britain such a service is needed.
We are rolling the service out to a few other larger libraries in Norfolk who will also recruit their own volunteers to promote and manage it and we have had interest from several other library authorities across the country. It would be amazing to see it expand to other public libraries across the country.
In our first eight weeks of running the service we have redistributed approximately 140 packs of sanitary products and we now see that far more people than we first realised experience period poverty. There is still stigma around periods as proved by the key findings from a report by Plan International UK which include the following:
- only one in five girls feel comfortable discussing their period with their teachers
- less than a quarter of girls feel comfortable discussing their period with their male friends
- under a third of girls feel comfortable discussing their period with their fathers
- four fifths (82 per cent) of girls admitted they have hidden or concealed their sanitary products
- almost three quarters (71 per cent) of girls admitted that they have felt embarrassed buying sanitary products.
The Tricky Period service has inspired new conversations in our libraries, between staff, with partner organisations and with customers. We would like to think that we are helping to reduce some of the stigma.
I'll end with some words which reaffirmed for us why we decided to do this. They arrived with a big donation of products and this message: "£20 of sanitary products for girls who cannot afford them. I remember, at school at 14, the embarrassment of having to use folded up toilet paper and this is also to help those girls and women who live on the streets, homeless." IP