July 17, 2018

We Need To End Period Poverty For All Women, Everywhere

“You shouldn’t have to choose between paying for school fees and buying sanitary pads.”

Meghan Markle was one of the first celebrities to have written about period poverty in March 2017 for TIME magazine. She said: “During my time in the field, many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill-equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without bathrooms available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school entirely.” When the news first hit the headlines that girls in the UK from low-income families were skipping school because they couldn’t afford sanitary products, hearts around the country sunk together. How could this be happening at home, and worse in so many other parts of the world?

Young activists bring hope. I recently interviewed Amika George, an 18-year-old student from North London who started the #FreePeriods campaign, which called on the government to give free menstrual products to girls who were on free school meals. A brilliant starting point that pinpointed those who might be most vulnerable to the problem, and helping them first. In a recent episode of my podcast Amika said: “We can’t control when we have periods, we can’t regulate them. They are a totally normal and natural body process, and yet we have to pay for the thing that helps us to manage them. If we want to achieve gender equality, we need to live in a world where our needs (as women) are met.” Amika has been organising protests and petitions to remove the tax so tampons are no longer classed as a ‘luxury item’. The Free Periods campaign is an example of making change has been helped by the interconnectivity of social media and the young people who use it. A case in point that these campaigns can be more than just ‘clicktivism’ —  it has spurred on meaningful and tangible results from the UK government.

Widening the lens on an issue is important. Equality can only be truly achieved if it is intersectional and global. We need to look at all corners of the world. In Kenya, it is an even bigger issue and women are making huge change at a grassroots level. Many women can’t get access to sanitary products, preventing them from going to school, work, and even being part of the community. Juliana Katini, who works in Barut, a rural community in Kenya, supports women and girls with information, education and supplies to address menstrual hygiene. She is the glue to many communities there. It was her close relationship with the women and girls that encouraged them to open up about the lack of sanitary products in the first place. Juliana first began volunteering with women’s groups in 2015, teaching them how to stitch, sew and make soap. The women grew close to Juliana and confided in her about the challenges they faced without sanitary pads, many of them telling her of their decision to pay for their children’s school fees, over buying pads for themselves.

The power of community is so important. But it shouldn’t be just left to community organisers like Juliana who become the only ones left to meet a huge rising demand. It is so much (and too much) to put on just local leaders and volunteers shoulders. Without help, the waiting list for sanitary products is getting longer and longer.

This is where online petitions really can do something tangible when it comes to helping women in places like Kenya. There is a JustGiving page where you can donate, and the money raised will be used to buy the machinery needed to make sanitary towels available to more women. This will help in many ways: more employment opportunities for those who make them, more education around periods, and of course an increase in sanitary products for communities.

People like Juliana are changing lives and removing a deeply entrenched stigma around menstrual health. Let’s do all we can to support them. As Juliana says: “You shouldn’t have to choose between paying for school fees and buying sanitary pads.” No woman should ever be put in that position.

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