From period poverty to period dignity
Special feature with Hey Girls
It’s sometimes early and sometimes late. It can arrive unexpectedly, with little warning. Normally cramping, mood swings, bloating and pimples will show up like red flags signalling it is near.
Half of the population experiences ‘that time of the month’ for more than 30 years of their lives. And yet, as many as one in ten girls in the UK have struggled to afford period products.
Period poverty is complex. Hey Girls’ education and impact manager Molly Brown tells Holyrood:
“Everybody makes spending choices within their budget, but having to choose whether you’re going to bleed on your trousers or eat lunch is not a real choice"
“We don’t think people should have to make that choice; this shouldn’t be a problem in 21st-century Britain,” Brown says.
Scottish social enterprise Hey Girls was created on founder Celia Hodson’s kitchen table in Dunbar with a clear mission to end period poverty. The plan was to sell plastic-free period products with a ‘buy one, give one’ model, by giving a girl or woman in need one pack of products for every pack purchased.
Since launching in early 2018, Hey Girls has donated more than 5.6 million period products across the UK, and its products are now stocked by two-thirds of Scottish local authorities and in major UK supermarkets.
“We joined the wider conversations about period poverty that were ongoing at the time. We went very quickly from an organisation that sold to individuals online to an organisation that sells wholesale to the public sector,” Brown says.
Period poverty is a worldwide phenomenon, first recognised in the Global South, where girls sometimes drop out of school when they have their first period.
The campaign around the tampon tax kick-started discussions about period poverty in a British context – with organisations founded to supply products to homeless women and refugees. In 2017, charity Freedom4Girls was providing sanitary products to Kenyan women and girls when they were contacted by a Leeds school, informing them that local students were missing school because they couldn’t afford to buy pads or tampons.
There is not yet accurate data on the extent of period poverty in UK schools. A 2018 Young Scot survey found that one quarter of Scottish secondary school, college and university students said they had struggled to access period products and of these respondents, 70 per cent said they had been forced to improvise with alternative protection, for example, by using toilet roll.
In response, Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free access to period products in schools, colleges and universities. Millions of pounds have been poured into initiatives to make the products easily accessible to those who need them.
The Scottish Government distributed its first tranche of period poverty funding in July 2017, through a six-month pilot programme for women and girls in low-income households in Aberdeen.
Last year the programme was rolled out nationally, with free period products available to community groups via Fare Share, and £5.2m to offer free pads and tampons to students in schools, colleges and universities across Scotland. In the first six months of this programme, more than eight million products were distributed.
The policy was again extended this year, with an additional £4m to make free sanitary products available in public buildings, such as libraries, community centres and leisure centres.
But Hey Girls insists more should be done to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly period products. “Given the ongoing climate crisis, it’s important to think about sustainable solutions to solving period poverty, and Hey Girls is at the forefront of that conversation,” the social enterprise’s chief executive, Celia Hodson, says.
The disposal of single-use period products in the UK generates 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, the Women’s Environmental Network found. Most pads are 90 per cent plastic, which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfill or in the ocean.
Hey Girls’ products are all plastic-free and biodegradable, and it also sells reusable period products like menstrual cups. “We do a lot of work with schools, youth clubs and community groups to distribute reusable products, because you can’t just leave a menstrual cup in a washroom and hope someone will take it,” Brown says. “You need to have a conversation to explain the benefits.”
In fact, Hey Girls has found that education is key to distributing period products. Hey Girls has created lesson plans, teaching resources and training to educate students and teachers - men and women - about periods.
Brown says the messaging around access to period products needs to change. “What we’ve found is that if you communicate this purely as a poverty initiative, people can struggle to take the products, you add another layer of stigma,” she says.
“Even admitting that you’re on your period when you’re 12 can be really embarrassing, so we can’t expect pupils to reveal that not only are they on their period, but they can’t afford period products.”
Brown explains: “Although awareness of period poverty provided the impetus for public funding, when we communicate about free period products to the public – especially young people – we need messaging around equality of access and gender equality. It needs to be clear these products are for everyone, not just ‘poor people’.”
Ensuring barrier-free access means placing pads and tampons in the toilets, not requiring students to ask staff at reception or go to a teacher, Brown says. “We’ve been working very hard with schools to ensure that they’re providing products freely in the toilets, partly because within a school break, you might not have time to walk from your geography lesson to the school reception, then to the toilet, and get to maths on time.”
Hey Girls has been working closely with schools, colleges and universities across Scotland to collect examples of best practice.
At Stirling High School students adopted ‘Pedro the period panda’ as their mascot, with pupils responsible for distributing period products and education across the school dressed as a panda. At Broughton High School, in Edinburgh, the ‘Menstruation Association’ worked hard to get products in accessible toilets. And S3 pupils from St Paul’s RC High School in Glasgow were trained to deliver lessons with S1 classes, and then ran a period conference with pupil representatives from all Glasgow secondary schools, to share their learning.
“Again, and again, it is the organisations that get students involved who have the most success,” Brown says. “It’s really important to allow students to take the lead and really own the project. With a whole-school approach, you can really break down the stigma surrounding periods.”
Although access to free period products is increasing with the public sector roll-out, there are still a few gaps. A lack of period products in Scottish hospitals is one key issue.
“If you have an operation, and you’re a woman and on a hospital ward for a week, there’s no provision,” Brown says. “The ward manager might have a pad in their drawer, people buy them themselves, or you put on your crutches and hobble downstairs to the hospital shop.”
In March this year the British Medical Association launched a UK-wide campaign calling for trusts and health boards to provide free sanitary products, after a 2018 investigation by Scottish Labour health spokesperson Monica Lennon found that none of Scotland’s 14 health boards had a policy to provide the products.
A Scottish Government spokesperson told Holyrood the Chief Nursing Officer had written to all health boards in Scotland last year “reminding them of their obligation to provide free products to patients”.
At a parliamentary level, Lennon’s Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill was formally introduced to the Scottish Parliament in April and is now being considered at Stage 1 by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee.
Lennon tells Holyrood: “The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly supportive” and passing the bill “will make history and I believe this will have a positive global influence”.
“The bill will ensure that the gains that have been made are put on a statutory footing and go further still, to provide free universal access to period products to anyone who needs them. Period products are not luxury items, they are essential items, and no one should face the indignity of having to go without,” she says.
Lennon is also “very proud” that the Scottish Parliament became the first in the world to make products freely available to visitors and staff, and that: “We are now seeing period and menopause workplace policies emerging and I am confident that menstrual wellbeing will become part of our school curriculum.”
SNP MSP Gillian Martin has also long campaigned to end period poverty and agrees the conversation around periods has changed. “It’s becoming the norm,” Martin tells Holyrood. “Through having those conversations on social media, in the media and in our daily interactions at work and in communities, we are addressing period poverty directly.”
Martin adds: “I think anywhere that has a public washroom should provide them in the same way they do soap and toilet paper. I think all public sector buildings should have them as a matter of course. Government can lead the way – but the private sector has a duty too.”
While huge gains have been made in increasing access to products for vulnerable people, Hey Girls is working hard to move the conversation from period poverty to period dignity.
“If you’re caught short in the office, it could easily be the worst day of your career,” Hey Girls brand development lead Kirsten Blackburn says. “A business would never let their staff be without paper, pens, or toilet roll, so why don’t they provide period products.”
Blackburn is working closely with businesses to provide period products for staff members. So far, Hey Girls’ products are stocked in Visit Scotland, Aberdeen Standard Investments, H&M, Aesop and Brew Dog.
Not only are Hey Girls leading the way with the public and private sector, their ‘buy one, give one’ model means that every time a business does the right thing and buys products for their staff, a donation is generated for someone in need. This Scottish social enterprise is eradicating period poverty in a sustainable way, while ensuring period dignity for all.