Last year, when I was 17, and watching the news before school, I was stunned to hear of a hidden problem that was affecting thousands of girls in the UK. ‘Period poverty’ was a phrase I’d never heard of before, but it was driving girls as young as 11 to routinely skip school, or resort to improvising with socks stuffed with tissues, or newspaper, all because they didn’t have the money to buy menstrual products when they had their period.
I was horrified that this was happening right under our noses, but what I found most appalling was that the government knew this was happening, but had yet failed to help. I felt compelled to fight for these girls, who were my age or younger, to try and make things better. From my bedroom, I launched a campaign calling for the government to provide free access to pads and tampons for girls from low-income families, called it #FreePeriods and got to work. As the campaign gathered pace, the signatures on the online petition began to rise rapidly. In between studying for my A Levels, I started writing about period poverty, telling everyone who would listen how girls were being held back because they bleed and were poor. I started talking about my own period without shame, without embarrassment, with pride.
For me, the injustice before us was that a normal, natural, biological process could be the obstacle in holding girls back from achieving their goals and ambitions. In an age where women still bang their heads against the proverbial glass ceiling and everyday sexism seems firmly rooted in our daily lives, our periods simply cannot be the reason we are held back from realising real, long-term equality.
How can it be that in 2018, 137,500 British girls have missed school because they couldn’t afford pads or tampons? For me, this is a feminist fight because we do not choose to bleed; menstruation is not something we opt into, and for those girls who cannot go to school with adequate protection, there often is no choice but to stay at home to be close to the toilet. They tell no one, and suffer in silence. For those who venture into school, the fear of bleeding onto their uniform is overwhelming. How could their minds be on anything other than whether they’d make it out of the classroom blood-free with their dignity intact?
Girls contacted me to say how money was tight in their households, and with several mouths to feed, often their families were reliant on food banks for meals. It’s clear when there’s a choice between buying food or period products, there isn’t much of a choice at all. With child poverty on the rise, this is not a problem that will pass anytime soon.
The #FreePeriods mission spread and slowly started to creep into public consciousness. Initial interest and curiosity about the campaign soon morphed into rapid media coverage. It was clear that I was not alone in condemning period poverty, and there was widespread disbelief that this was happening in one of the most prosperous, economically-advanced nations.
Joining forces with the Pink Protest, we decided to capitalise on this momentum by organising the #FreePeriods peaceful protest. The aim was to gather together as many people as possible outside Downing Street, to wear red, to say we weren’t embarrassed to bleed, and capture the attention of our still, silent government. It was to be a rallying cry on behalf of every girl who felt they have no voice. Standing in Central London on 20th December 2017, facing a sea of red, our call for change rung louder than I could have imagined. Thousands had braved the cold from across the country. People of all ages, and genders, had assembled to stand united against period poverty, to stand up for each other. It was both humbling and empowering in equal measure and was evidence that we were energised and mobilised to change the status quo.
In March, the government announced that, for the very first time, it was going to allocate funds from taxing period products to help address period poverty. This was a monumental victory for #FreePeriods campaigners. Young people would be able to access menstrual products through various charities and I’m really looking forward to seeing the impact of that.
While we continue to lobby our government to commit to a statutory pledge to end period poverty for good, we desperately need to reframe menstruation in society’s eyes. Periods aren’t disgusting. They shouldn’t have to become a euphemism or be ridiculed. They shouldn’t be talked about in hushed tones or apologised for. Periods do not make women weak; they do not make us nagging, shouty, blubbering cry-babies. Periods need a rebrand as something that makes women pretty damn incredible.
There’s definitely a sense that periods, and other women’s health issues, are going through something of a revolution right now and we need to keep working to really own that conversation. #FreePeriods has become much bigger than me starting the campaign from my bedroom. It’s a testament to how a message can resonate with the masses, how we will come together to fight against injustice.
Feminist campaigns are as needed today as they were a century ago but our voices are now amplified by the power of social media, changing the ways in which we can communicate our mission to the world. We should never underestimate the strength we hold as women fighting together for change, to reshape and redefine what we want. We are resolute, we are fearless and we are ready to rise up because our moment is now.