On Wednesday, between 5pm and 8pm, Richmond Terrace in central London will slowly turn red. Hundreds will gather opposite Downing Street – people of all genders, races, ages and backgrounds, waving banners and demanding change. We will stand together because we are outraged. We are angry, and we have waited long enough for the government to take action against period poverty.
Period poverty hit the public consciousness in December 2016 following the release of Ken Loach’s hard-hitting film I, Daniel Blake. One scene, where a struggling single mother is caught stealing sanitary towels, particularly caught the imagination, and food banks were flooded with donations of menstrual products.
#FreePeriods is a national campaign calling for free menstrual products for children in receipt of free school meals
But it didn’t stop there. In March, the media were full of reports of schoolgirls in Leeds routinely missing school because they were unable to afford menstrual products. Children as young as 10 were choosing to stay at home to avoid the embarrassment of bleeding on their school uniform in front of their peers, because they weren’t adequately protected. They miss school every month because they cannot face the shame and fear of going to school using socks stuffed with tissues, old torn T-shirts or newspaper. In these families, menstrual products are an unattainable luxury.
More than eight months later, the government still has not responded to the atrocity of period poverty.
This failure to react is what spurred me to action. In April I started the #FreePeriods movement, a national campaign calling on the government to provide free menstrual products to children in receipt of free school meals. As these are the children from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, they are most likely to be faced with this monthly burden. I believe this could mark a decisive end to period poverty in the UK.
Period poverty is a worldwide phenomenon. Harrowing cases of poor menstrual hygiene are commonplace: India, Kenya and Cambodia have battled for years to prevent girls from dropping out of school in communities where mattress stuffing and leaves are often used for menstrual management. Earlier this year, the Kenyan government promised to provide all school girls with free menstrual pads. In November, the Indian state of Kerala launched its She Pad scheme, which will distribute free pads in around 300 schools.
Menstrual care is, undoubtedly, a human right and it’s time for our government to address the fact that some British girls are deprived of it.
It is silence that is preventing real progress from being made. The stigma and shame that shroud menstruation means girls are left to improvise alone every month, often without the knowledge of family members or friends. As we live in a world where periods are euphemised and belittled, and blue liquid is preferable to actual blood on TV adverts for sanitary towels, it’s no surprise that they cannot and do not ask for help. We need to dispel this nonsensical taboo through conversation. By talking about our periods as freely and honestly as possible, we can teach girls, as well as boys and men, that they are a completely natural process, part of the reproductive cycle, and are absolutely nothing to be whispering about. We should all be shouting about the power of the period, and celebrating our femininity.
The protest on Wednesday is for everyone, and it will be peaceful. We will hear from inspirational speakers such as the model and activist Adwoa Aboah, the MP Jess Phillips and the political commentator Ayesha Hazarika, and there will be opportunities to sign the petition and donate to brilliant charities. We’ll be there to raise awareness on behalf of every girl who has ever missed a day of school due to a lack of menstrual products. We’ll be there to urge the government to consign period poverty to history