From grassroots to government: Meet the women stamping out period poverty

The campaigners who have taken the fight for affordable sanitary products from grassroots to government tell Dionne Kennedy how they got there

Stark figures illustrate the extent of period poverty in the UK. Increasingly recognised as a public health issue, women’s rights group Plan International UK says one in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary products and 12 per cent have improvised. Additionally, 137,700 girls missed a day of school last year because they couldn’t afford menstrual products.

Expensive, essential and – for many – the cause of embarrassment, the issue of period poverty is exacerbated by sanitary products’ classification under EU regulations as “luxury” items for tax purposes, piling on the cost.

This “tampon tax” was introduced at 10 per cent VAT in 1973 when the UK joined the European Economic Community. It peaked at 17.5 per cent in 1991 and settled on a reduced rate of five per cent (the lowest under EU law) in January 2001, after Dawn Primarolo led the charge against the tax in parliament.

But around 2015 a groundswell of opposition emerged. A petition by activist Laura Coryton calling for the introduction of a zero-rate tax garnered over 320,000 signatures and forced then-chancellor George Osborne to announce that funds raised by VAT on tampons and towels would be donated to women’s health and support charities, a sum worth £15m in 2016-17.

And last spring 18-year-old Amika George, shocked to learn her peers were skipping school because of period poverty, started the #FreePeriods movement, bolstered by a 165,500-strong petition and over 2,000 people protesting outside Downing Street in December.

High-street giants took heed of this growing movement: Superdrug, Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons all decided to shoulder the VAT cost, cutting prices, and brands including Always and Bodyform launched campaigns to tackle the crisis of unaffordability and lack of availability to those in poverty.

Last July, the Scottish Government launched a six-month pilot working with 1,000 women in the Aberdeen area who said they had difficulties affording sanitary products. Free sanitary products were offered through foodbanks, women’s shelters and community centres, and last week Holyrood’s Equalities Secretary Angela Constance announced that the scheme would be rolled out across Scotland, where it is estimated 18,800 women need help obtaining these basics. She pointed out that it is “unacceptable” that anyone should be unable to access sanitary products, while Gillian Martin MSP described it as “a watershed moment”.

One revolutionary campaigner front and centre of the fight – and now working with the Scottish Government – is Celia Hodson, from Dunbar in East Lothian. With first-hand experience of the financial strain women across the country are experiencing, Hodson, with help from her two daughters, founded social enterprise Hey Girls, which sells sanitary towels on a ‘buy one give one model’ – meaning for every pack purchased, another is donated to a woman in need.

“It all started with a heated discussion between myself and my two daughters that results in a big hairy audacious goal,” she told The Big Issue. “We simply wanted to work out if we could fix period poverty and what that would look like.”

Hey, Girls

The enterprise smartly bridges the gap between activism and retail, and since launching in January has achieved outstanding success. Hey Girls is a key partner in the Scottish Government’s period poverty roll-out, matching the £500,000 Scottish Government funding with the equivalent value of donated pads, tampons, cups and reusable products.

“This is a world first. We’re doing something massive in Scotland and it’s really amazing to be part of that,” said Hodson.

But, she added, this is just the start: “We hope to expand and replicate the project elsewhere. My hope is that when the rest of the UK see all the incredible work that’s going on in Scotland they’ll want to replicate it.”

A £20,000 investment and mentorship from Big Issue Invest’s Power Up Scotland has helped bolster the social enterprise’s ability to grow.

Kieran Daly, Scotland Manager for Big Issue Invest, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Aberdeen Standard Investments, The University of Edinburgh, Scottish Government and Brodies LLP. This unique partnership has brought creativity, technical skills and mentoring to early-stage social ventures like Hey Girls, which adds value beyond the funding they receive. These inspiring social ventures will not only add to Scotland’s economy, they will make the society we live in fairer and more equal.”

“If it wasn’t for Big Issue Invest we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” acknowledged Hodson. “We wouldn’t have been able to scale up Hey Girls without the support, not even just the money but the mentoring, the training and the connections we’ve been able to make. With contracting advice, mentoring from top firms across the country, we’ve been able to become a more solid-feeling organisation.”

As the fight against period poverty gains momentum, it proves that public action can enact positive change in the corridors of power.

Buy or donate a pack of towels at heygirls.co.uk. To learn more about period poverty and how to join the fight visit freeperiods.org/partners