Freedom4Girls: Ending Period Poverty

Freedom4Girls: Ending Period Poverty

by Ellie Wriglesworth

40% of girls in the UK have used toilet roll because they’ve struggled to afford sanitary wear.

48% of girls said they believe overusing a sanitary product because they couldn’t afford a fresh one, had impacted their health.

14% of girls in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they started their period.

48% of girls feel embarrassed by their period, with the figure rising to 56% of 14 year olds.

1 in 7 girls have received comments about their cleanliness or hygiene, rising to 1 in 4 amongst 19 year olds. [1]

Most of us have experienced that unease and paranoia; when a tampon falls out of our bag in public. Most of us know the frustration and rage when, after asserting an opinion or taking the lead, a bloke decides to bring up your hormones in a cheap attempt to undermine you and reclassify you as a bossy bitch. Worst of all, most of us know how horrifying it is to realise that you have leaked.  But, most of us probably don’t know what it’s like to not be able to afford basic menstrual protection.

Freedom4Girls is a local charity, founded by Tina Leslie in 2016, that is dedicated to eradicating period poverty. In 2017 teachers in Leeds contacted the charity, concerned that female students were missing school because of their periods. Since this time Freedom4Girls expanded, working as they had previously in Kenya, and then more in the local area; distributing menstrual products to schools working with FairShare, campaigning for better menstrual education, and collaborating with other organisations in an attempt to change societal perceptions and exact real change. 

According to Tina, the most important step towards ending period poverty is disrupting the perpetuation of shame and fear by dismantling the construction of periods as taboo. She says that this "internalised shame has infiltrated daily life" for people that menstruate but that "this would change if we spoke about periods in a normal way from a young age". She continues, asking, "if we spoke about periods in the same way we talk about the weather, how different would society be?" If these conversations could infiltrate our political structures and be taken seriously, how much would our perceptions change, and how much would society change? Most of all, if menstrual products were affordable and easily accessible, how many lives would improve?

Unfortunately, it may take a while to interrupt the dominant discourse, especially when social institutions rely on inhibiting women’s bodily autonomy and enable a media culture that profits from women’s insecurities. According to Plan International, ‘The narratives that menstrual products and fashion adverts disseminate, encourage the silence around menstruation [and] help to create a culture in which women are expected to be clean, leak-free, and blemish-free’. [2] I, for one, am tired of adverts for menstrual products that cost the earth (both financially and environmentally), that only depict thin white women beaming like deranged mannequins whilst skiing, or coquettishly showing the camera a bottom clad in white jeans. And OH YEAH BLOOD IS RED, not blue. Tina shared my distaste, stating that the advertising industry has a long way to go if it wants to start supporting women and making a real difference towards accurate menstrual representation and effecting social change (here’s looking at you, Always). [3]

A major way to break the taboo of periods is through education. Menstruation needs to be seen as normal, and it needs to be understood. Tina is adamant that children should be taught about periods at a younger age, and that menstrual education must be more comprehensive. She says, "a lot of women […] don’t know they have three holes. I met an 18 year old that had no idea. [School needs to cover] the physical and emotional effects of menstruating, as well as the biological, more abstract information". If we were taught at school more about the lived, experiential and embodied aspects of menstruation then Tina claims, "girls would feel more comfortable with their own individual experiences and know more about what is happening to their own bodies". It is also incredibly important to educate boys in the same areas. Tina says, "[many of them] will have mothers, sisters and future girlfriends. Some of them will become fathers. They need to know." How do we expect to raise respectful and informed boys when they are encouraged to distance themselves from female experiences? Do we think these boys will grow into men that support female bodily autonomy and be equal partners in sexual relationships? Or, is it more likely that their ignorance will perpetuate the normalisation of a masculinity that is characterised by aggressive control, and the inability to talk about vaginas and their functions without feeling threatened or embarrassed? It is so important, if we want to create a society where women’s bodies are not demonised or undermined, that both boys and girls learn about menstruation in a safe and inclusive environment in which periods are discussed without shame.

It is imperative that conversations and attitudes change because Tina says, "ignorance has a very real and disturbing effect on girls’ education" and their access to opportunities. Plan International found that ‘negative attitudes towards menstruation by peers, and related sexual harassment, can affect girls’ motivation to study, their self-esteem and their self-worth, which can lead to them having lower ambitions and career expectations’. [4] Girls and young women are missing up to five days of school every month, because they cannot afford menstrual protection. Tina has heard from families who have been forced to cut up nappies to use in place of pads, or even slices of bread. For Tina, the solution is to work with the current government (disturbingly the only political party in the UK to not have a menstrual manifesto) to implement discernible and lasting change, putting pressure on political parties to prioritise discussions surrounding period poverty and, most important of all, ensure that action is undertaken to combat it in all areas of society.

Girls are being forced to sacrifice their education and are encouraged to hate their bodies because our society persists in constructing menstruation as disgusting and shameful.  Freedom4Girls is determined to normalise menstruation and assist in the implementation of meaningful societal change. If you feel as strongly about eradicating period poverty as we do at Harpy, then check out the links below.

To read 'Break The Barriers: Girls’ Experiences Of Menstruation in the UK', a study conducted by Plan International, click here: Break the Barriers Report

If you want to find out more, including how to donate menstrual products, or to find out how you can get involved, visit the charity's website: Freedom4Girls

If you want to support them in their work, then please donate through their GoFundMe page; Freedom4Girls GoFundMe    

Take part in their monthly workshops to make reusable sanitary pads to send to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia at Inkwell

Image by the incredible Sarah Maple

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