Dec 9, 2019 by carol adams.
There are £5,000 that women are having to spend on pads, tampons and the like. However you look at that, it’s a significant amount and, with a figure so high, it’s easy to see how many people struggle to afford the basic essentials they need to go through their periods hygienically and with dignity. Hundreds of millions of women, particularly those in developing and low-income countries, are held back from participating fully in their societies, accessing education and navigating their communities due to the lack of access to menstrual products and years of taboo and shame around periods.
It’s a problem that’s much closer to home than many people think, too. Period poverty is still rife in the UK, where more than 137,700 girls have missed school after being unable to afford sanitary products and 40% have said they’ve had to use toilet roll in place of sanitary products. It’s not just an economic issue, though – it’s an educational one. Many of us have no idea what goes into our sanitary products or what other options are out there. But a group of women are helping to change this. This week saw Project Period host an event to discuss tackling the issue of period poverty. In attendance were The Cup Effect, Free Periods, OHNE, Betty and Bloody Good Periods – organisations battling to put an end to the lack of access to menstrual products and awareness around periods. I spoke to the women involved about what actions are currently being taken and what more needs to be done.
Mandu Reid founded The Cup Effect, a charitable NGO and social enterprise focused on raising the profile of menstrual cups as well as making them more widely available. For every cup purchased through the organisation, two are donated to women worldwide who can’t access them. And because they’re reusable, each one can be used for up to 10 years – which means a decade of dignified periods every time one is distributed to a woman in need.
Highlighting the need to spread awareness, Reid said: “Menstrual cups have been around since the 1930s, but I only discovered them in my late twenties – and I consider myself a fortunate, well-informed person.” Having made such a huge difference to her life, it occurred to her what a difference menstrual cups could make to others if only they knew about them, or were willing to give them a try. Reid also spoke about the need to banish inherited assumptions: “We need to stop assuming we know what people want… Before I went to visit a community of Muslim women in Lamu [Kenya], I was warned, ‘They’ll never go for a menstrual cup; they’ll never use it.’ But it turns out that wasn’t true at all.” Those women now use them every time they have their period.
Speaking on progress, Reid said, “It’s the year of menstrual momentum. We’re talking more openly about periods now than ever before... I’m looking forward to the day when I can shut the fuck up about menstrual cups, because everyone will already know everything they need to know about them.”
Gabby Edlin started Bloody Good Period, an organisation that provides free menstrual products to refugees and asylum-seekers at centres in London and Leeds. “I remember when I first started, I was told to hide the products under the table and hand them out one by one, but I said no – how will the women know what they want?” says Edlin, explaining that she lays the products out for everyone to see. “The women browse for what they want and take what they need.” Edlin’s aim is to expand the organisation so that it can reach as many people who need free sanitary products as possible, because “everyone has a right to a bloody good period”.
At the age of 17, Amika George was so shocked by a report about the impact of period poverty here in the UK that she started a petition asking the government to provide free sanitary products to all girls who receive free school meals. That was in 2017 and, since then, the petition has gone on to gather almost 200,000 signatures. George has also helped to kick-start the social-media movement #FreePeriods and, along with fellow campaigners Scarlett Curtis and Grace Campbell, organised a protest march in Parliament Square that was attended by hundreds. Now a student at the University of Cambridge, George runs the website Free Periods and takes part in events spreading the message of period poverty. Speaking to me at the Project Period event, she said: “Some girls are missing one week each month at school because of the lack of access to menstrual products. It’s setting them behind and putting them at a disadvantage.” I asked her whether she had plans to take on the issue full-time after finishing her degree. “I’ll have to,” she said. “If no change has been made by then, I just couldn’t not try and push it through.” So far, the government has not acted on the requests set out in the petition.
OHNE – a German word meaning “without” and pronounced “or-ner” – was chosen as the brand name for Leah Remfry-Peploe and Nikki Michelsen’s sanitary-product start-up for two reasons. “We pronounce it ‘on’,” says Remfry-Peploe, “as a nod to when you’re ‘on’ your period.” But the other significance is the German sense of the word – "without". OHNE’s aim is to tackle the injustice faced by those without access to menstrual products and without access to information about what they’re actually using. “There’s no regulation on what’s in our tampons in the UK,” says Remfry-Peploe. “And, there’s no regulation on disclosing what’s in them. Nothing. There’s more regulation around pet food, which is mad.” Many mainstream tampons are made from rayon and bleached polyester, which contain toxins as well as plastic packaging, and applicators that are hugely damaging to the environment. OHNE’s tampons are made out of non-toxic, natural and sustainable ingredients such as 100%-organic cotton for the tampons and paper packaging. And that’s not all. Remfry-Peploe and Michelsen are providing schoolgirls in Zambia with health and menstrual education so that they know what’s happening when they first get their periods. This also includes equipping them with new hygienic toilet blocks and the tools, equipment and instructions needed to make reusable sanitary pads to make a long-term and sustainable difference.
betty for schools provides free PSHE Association accredited online and in-school resources that teachers and parents can use to educate school students aged 8-12 about periods. The lessons encourage open and honest conversations about periods and the way it affects girls. It’s used by teachers to educate teens about menstrual health in their PSHE (Personal, Social Health Education) lessons and to destigmatize the conversation around periods from an early age. betty for schools also travel to schools and GirlGuiding groups up and down the UK on their betty bus – providing a safe space for boys and girls to explore the emotional side of periods. They’ve also created a teen-facing online platform, betty.me, which is a hub of everything they need to know about puberty, pads and periods. Speaking to me, Becky Hipkiss, Head of Education at betty for schools said, “we are looking forward to pushing period education to the forefront of the curriculum in 2019, working with teachers and schools to give the issue a larger platform, in addition to helping to tackle period poverty”. This year, betty has given away over 50,000 pads to disadvantaged pupils.