It’s a Man’s World

When we pussyfoot around the issue of poverty & feminine hygiene

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Turning around with striking blue eyes making eye contact with me, her skin slightly worn and tired, with each line on her face telling a part of her life story. After our eyes lock, I start to wonder: how many stories she could tell that would suck me into a whirlwind moodiness. Each line on her face telling a story that would inform me of the complex realities of being homeless.

To give context to this thought pattern, I remember a quote that I read a few years ago, ‘the moment a woman is born, and the Doctor says to your mother ‘it’s a girl,’ that’s the moment your life will change forever.’

These gender constructs have been so entrenched in our society that as women we’re ‘Pretty in Pink’ when in fact, we have gone through the wars. For the most part, women are considered to be emotional creatures incapable of adventurous combat, well, that’s what the gender binary tells us.

Women wear their hearts on their sleeves and bleed to their feet, continuing a bad day with mood swings and cramps, like nothing bad can or has ever happened. Our bodies bleed freely each month but for many, especially homeless women this natural act may feel like a luxury.

Living in Berlin, an interesting, complex and strange metropolis, the feeling of home is unexplainable at times. The current housing problem is a manifestation of such a sentiment. Known for its housing problem, the city has also increased in the number of homeless people, doubling in numbers since 2016.

In January 2018 the city hosted the First Strategy Conference on Homelessness and Politics, organised by Social Senator Elke Breitenbach. Der Tagesspiegel reported that this was the first time that this was a first for representatives of respected District and Senate administrators met with relief organisations to discuss this issue at hand.

This event gave the opportunity for all those responsible to create “Guidelines for homelessness assistance and policy.” The message of the event was clear: Every homeless person in the city, no matter what country they come from, no matter what status they have, should get permanent accommodation, if possible of course, a classic apartment. This analogy leaves any Berliner, old & new, feeling hopeful.

While many believe that this may be an optimal strategy, looking at the numbers there could be a glimmer of hope, a little red dot in the horizon. With the rising population size, the Senate has drawn up for an estimated 25 063 new apartments and rooms to become available to local residents.

Currently, there are over 44 000 rooms that are not available in Berlin, due to missing investments. In 2016, 13 659 new rooms were made available highlighting the fact that the issue isn’t that Berlin hasn’t got enough space, the issue is that of money and investment. With more investments, the Senate believes that they are able to push 68% competition rate to 100%. But where does this leave the invisible? Where does this leave the unsupported women, who act aloof to preconceived judgements thrown at an u-Bahn station while they’ve slipped through the cracks of our system, scrounging through old chocolate wrappers to obtain coins for food? The same women who are stigmatised and shamed whilst being denied basic health necessities (like sanitary pads).

This system is economical, so as the numbers of available property rise in the city, the homeless problems do too. A Berlin resident, Manuela*, continuously sees how bad the situation is, especially for homeless women, “the situation has gotten worse, even more so with the rise of homeless women over the years,” she explains, “I don’t understand how the district representatives and Senate are helping them to even obtain monthly sanitary products?!”

A group of people who live on the streets are almost forgotten and have become invisible to members of society. If such a notion is not challenged then it could be a ticking time bomb for homelessness in relations to dignity and feminine hygiene.

Daniela*, a Berlin-city dweller, has been homeless for just under 2 years now. “I come from Poland and came to Berlin for a better life, you know,” she tells me politely, “but when it comes to that time of the month it’s not that easy for me. Sometimes you just got to make your own pads.” This inventive approach is understandable when having to choose between feeding yourself or feminine hygiene products. Although disingenuous approaches can be gifted ones, they could lead to health issues if women are making their own tampons.

To bring back dignity to women, here come Maxi Bethge & Tom Osmond from GEBEWO — Soziale Dienste (GEBEWO pro gGmbH). Since May 2016 they have started a crowdfunding project to grant emergency accommodation for women with necessary feminine hygiene articles — the core goal is to push the necessity of feminine hygiene.

There have been a number of donations made through the Betterplace donation online platform to help. When asked how Maxi got the idea, she told Not Another Woman Magazine, “if you read that women stuff socks in to cope with it, you just have that personal feeling of empathy and you’re just thinking, “Dude, I could not imagine that.” Even when we’re on the go and we know women are getting tired, I need a toilet, but we still have a home, and it’s a home with our little box that’s always standing there.”

While conferences and people behind the scenes are working on stabilising this issue with innovative housing solutions, the natural body clock ticks and basic femme-issues are forgotten or deemed not important. This is not to say it’s done on purpose, but more so to do with environments and spaces that enforce gender binaries and conditioning.

If many believe this topic is taboo and shouldn’t be discussed daily, would it ever be brought up in an impactful way by the Senate and influential decision-makers? If a bigger consideration is not pushed for the policies on feminine hygiene for homeless women, is it due to a lack of communication or lack of thought? As society is our visual periphery bombarded with branded goods and their aesthetics instead of understanding people and their lived experiences?

It is clear that shelters and relief organisations are flowing, but can we flow faster? Women’s needs differ and do less well in support services because, as per St. Mungo’s report states, these systems are designed for men. The report continues to explain: “These male-focused services often fail to comprehensively address the needs of their female service users, and a lack of coordination between services can result in some needs remaining unmet altogether” — as is seen with the lack accessibility to female hygiene products, or lack of communication thereof.

While homelessness is a topic that isn’t invisible to Berlin’s community agenda, the official Berlin City website [berlin.de] has provided information about services that are supported by the Senate Administration for Urban Development and the Environment. Working together they have provided a list of telephone numbers of homeless aid agencies that are supported by the Senate.

In addition to the above, there are organisations like welfare associations and religious communities, of which it seems none wanted to push feminine hygiene & homelessness, to the forefront of their agenda. Not disregarding the commendable work that has been done in Berlin to help the homeless, there seems to be a gap, and it’s a gap that ‘a little cotton mouse’ could fit in quite snuggly.

There’s no denying that efforts have been made to provide women with access to feminine hygiene products, but are these efforts rewarding and accessible? Or are there may be better ways in which all Senate and district representatives can ensure, along with relief charities and other conference attendees, effective accessibility for women in the city?

A new strategy, that is communicated effectively, could eliminate the cramps and bloat currently experienced. When organisations come into contact with vulnerable women, are they making sure they recognised particular experiences and challenges felt by these women? And when identified, are there solutions that can highlight missed opportunity? The resilient nature of homeless women should be recognised and acknowledged in a system that has deemed them ‘other’ and irresponsible.

Feminine hygiene & homelessness is a story that is often left untold, much like the experiences felt by the homeless faces present in the u-Bahn station. Hands digging in trashcans whilst performing a relatable practice to survive each day. These narratives break preconceived notions and ideas of what life is and what it could be for others. Through all these ebbs and flows in life, we must remember that the natural (monthly) cycle continues.

Freelance Journalist & Strategist | MA Student in Convergent Journalism at HMKW Berlin | Polish-born-South African currently residing in Neukölln, Berlin.

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