Over centuries, menstruation has been seen as a dirty process, shrouded in secrecy and taboo. The stigma associated with menstruation continues across the globe today, with many women finding it embarrassing or difficult to talk about periods even to their family members or friends.
In some cultures, instances of ‘menstrual seclusion’ are common, where menstruating women are excluded from preparing food, using communal vessels and entering spaces of worship. The perception of menstruation as an unclean or toxic process is still perpetuated in Western societies, although in different ways. Women actively change their behaviour to avoid overtly showing that they are on their period, for example avoiding white clothing or abstaining from certain activities, such as swimming. The emphasis of menstruation as an unclean, malodorous process that needs to be concealed has also created opportunities for the commodification of ‘solutions’: the booming market for menstrual hygiene products was worth close to 30 billion US dollars in 2015. Menstruation is a costly process: in the UK, it is estimated that the average woman spends over £3500 on sanitary products. Women in Western countries are so accustomed to using commodified, reusable sanitary products that alternative methods, such as cloths and reusable products, are sometimes viewed as anachronistic, less hygienic methods of menstrual management. Therefore, the main method by which women manage their period is through buying and using disposable sanitary products. This may seem an obvious observation. However, for the economically marginalised, affording sanitary products may be difficult or even impossible. Having good menstrual hygiene is not only important to protect women against negative social reactions that follow overt leaking or staining, but also to avoid the possibility of damaging reproductive and gynaecological health. This has been researched and documented in the case of the Global South, however in Western countries, the effect of socioeconomic marginalisation on the experiences and management methods of menstruation has been little explored.
This study is an attempt to understand in more complexity the ways in which homeless women in the UK experience and manage their periods, in a context of financial and social vulnerability. The inability to afford sanitary products may lead to homeless women using unhygienic or irregular methods to keep their menstrual state concealed. Menstruation is also commonly conceived as a fraught process, associated with to fluctuating emotions and pain. Experiencing menstrual cramps or emotional upset that have been linked to fluctuating hormones while on the street could also be another burden on the lives of those who are struggling to find their next meal and place of rest. It is important to understand these issues from the perspective of those experiencing them.