Recently, research showed that one in four women in Amsterdam does not always have money for tampons or sanitary napkins. PS went to see the Social Grocery Store in Noord where menstrual products are provided free of charge. ‘Often they use an alternative, such as toilet paper, or someone doesn’t leave the house.’
In the church De Ark of the Protestant Deaconie Amsterdam in Noord, where one of the 29 free menstrual product dispensing points (MUPs) in Amsterdam can be found, a man in his mid-forties walks with a shopping basket between the shelves of care products. Northerners can visit the Food Bank every Thursday morning, and Den Sociale Købmand has established itself there.
Shampoo, deodorant, detergent and other non-food products are for sale in Den Sociale Dagligvare’s mini store at 30 percent of the normal price, with a Foodbank card. When the man places his basket at the cash register, he reaches into the bin with free Always sanitary napkins. “How many girls do you have at home?” asks Najib, who does not want his last name in the paper, behind the cash register. “Two daughters and your wife? Just bring three packs.”
Najib even knows his customers. “I think sometimes they think I’m clever with the questions I ask, but I know it’s necessary. That the fathers don’t know exactly how much sanitary napkins they need, or that they don’t dare ask for more than the free two packs per customer.” Najib should know because he has three teenage daughters at home. “I always make sure there is enough at home. And because sanitary napkins and tampons are expensive, I always go to Action myself.”
The recent Menstrual Poverty Survey, which shows that more than a quarter of Amsterdam women cannot always afford menstrual products, has kicked things off. Because, such was the general trend, it cannot be right that this is happening in our prosperous country. The city has woken up, but there are still no concrete solutions. For the time being, we have to make do with Nabofeminister’s 27 free distribution boxes and the 29 MUPs that can be found on Fattigkassen’s website.
Doreen Bor, coordinator of Den Sociale Dagligvarebutik, knows all too well the stories of families who have too few or no menstrual products at home. “If you have to choose between food or sanitary napkins because of the limited budget, the choice is quickly made. Then an alternative is used, such as toilet paper, or someone does not leave the house. This is also the main reason why we give the products for free; break through this social isolation. So the girls can go to school during their period and the mothers can continue to participate in all social activities.”
Every week, boxes full of free menstrual products pass through the social grocery store. Although the offer differs quite a bit because they are completely dependent on what the companies donate. Bor: “I have noticed that several new people have joined the food bank in recent weeks, and therefore also Den Sociale Dagligvare. People who are clearly there for the very first time and who look around a little uncomfortably.” That it is worrying at the moment because of the high energy bills and inflation is evident from the stories she hears from regular customers. That they often lie in bed during the day to keep warm and eat once or at most twice a day.
“Poverty and scarcity affect people, I see that happening here every week. It also encourages hoarding. I suspect that many who go to the Food Bank have built up a decent stock at home. Because if you can’t pay the next month, at least you have something at home. That is why we have chosen to put a maximum number of menstrual products per customer in the store. We can see from the color of the food bank card how big a family is, and also how many sanitary napkins are needed. If they take too little of modesty, we say something about it too. But it turns out to be a difficult subject to talk about. The conversations often do not come naturally.”
Toilet paper as an alternative
Recent research among 870 Amsterdam women, from the non-profit organization Neighborhood Feminister and the analysis agency Opinium, showed not only that one in four respondents cannot always afford the products, but also that menstrual poverty has increased significantly in recent months. Tammy Sheldon, president of Neighborhood Feminister and initiator of the survey, said: “Two out of five respondents said they were financially more difficult than they were six months ago. That was even the case for half of young people aged 18 to 24 years.” More than 38 percent of respondents experiencing menstrual poverty regularly faced the choice between buying food or menstrual products. Sheldon: “It was indicated that toilet paper was used not only as an alternative to sanitary napkins, but also as a tampon. I find it very disturbing given the health risks.”
A regular customer at Sociale Kruidenier wants to share his story anonymously. She says she is on unemployment benefits, is single and has two daughters aged 12 and 14. “Menstrual products are expensive and I don’t have the money to buy enough every month. The free products are not enough for the three of us. Everything we get goes to my daughters. My eldest is doing a pre-school education and my second daughter is in grade 8 and has pre-university counselling. I think it is important that they can go to school every day, even when they are menstruating. Because there are often only free sanitary napkins and no panty liners that I need, I have to change my underwear five times a day. It’s hard for me to talk about it or ask for extra packages because I’m ashamed of it.’
A volunteer from the store adds that there are girls who menstruate twice a month and therefore need even more products. Something that is not talked about, but is actually happening.
From this week, a free product has been added to the Social Merchant’s range; Moodies menstrual underwear. Owner Claire van Beek of the startup gives a fixed percentage – 5 percent – away from the number of pants sold for free. It has become 400 before the year 2022. Bor: “When I told our volunteers about these underpants, stories were promptly shared about changing underpants five times a day. So you see, the problem is closer than you think.”
In addition to food banks, health centers and community centers, the map with MUPs also shows a few schools, such as the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. When we inquire about the address, it turns out that the delivery point is on the other side of the street. The three men behind the counter in Wibauthuis have no idea. Until a security guard says he ran into something on the fifth floor. It turns out to be the fourth at the SESI Community Center, a practice organization founded by students and educators to promote inclusive education.
“When it comes to inclusion, class inclusion and poverty also fall under this, and a collaboration with the Poverty Foundation has emerged from this theme,” says a student. Near the toilets is a cabinet with three tampon trays and the text: ‘Hey you! All products are free for you to use!’ “It’s been there for a year now and it’s being used well. I definitely recommend it to other schools. And especially high schools, because I think it is even more necessary there.” The secondary schools are just missing from the map, just like the elementary schools.
Sociale Kruidenier, the food bank’s non-food department, is an initiative of the Protestant Diakonie Amsterdam and is located in two places in the city: in the north and in the south. Free menstrual products are available at both locations upon presentation of a Food Card. Visit www.socialekruidenier.nl for opening hours. On www.armoedefonds.nl there is a map with all MUPs (menstrual products distribution points). There are currently around 1200 throughout the Netherlands and 29 in Amsterdam. See www.neighborhoodfeminists.nl for a map with their 27 so-called menstruation stations.