“Ron, have you ever had to wipe your arse and then been charged £3.95 for the pleasure?”
The arguments for free period products in schools, universities, hospitals, football grounds, concert venues and more are vast and difficult to disagree with. But none perhaps sum up the frustration of the female population more accurately than the above quote, by Susie Verrill on Twitter.
Verrill was replying to a gentleman who questioned why his football club – Everton FC in Liverpool – had joined the ‘On The Ball’ campaign to provide free period products to female football fans. He was incredulous that fans could afford a £38 match ticket but had no money for sanitary wear, and branded it a waste of Everton’s hard-earned dough.
What emotions must ‘Ron’ have felt in the summer of this year when Everton spent an eye-watering £50,000,000 to sign Brazilian player Richarlison? Maybe incredulity. But male indifference is probably more likely.
On The Ball’s own research finds that 14% of girls who took part in a poll had improvised on sanitary products due to cost. 77% had to improvise due to being “caught short” without anything to hand. Only 9% had never had to improvise.
The campaign is run by three Celtic supporters, Orlaith Duffy, Mikaela McKinlay and Erin Slaven. They began their campaign in March this year to have their own club implement free sanitary products for women at Celtic Park. Celtic met with the trio and implemented the scheme, which has now been copied at the time of press by 42 other clubs across the UK, a list that is crossing over into other sports such as rugby and expanding weekly.
“There’s obviously a tax on tampons and period products are taxed as a luxury item,” says Duffy. “That’s completely crazy. It’s a hygienic need, it’s necessary. It’s just like soap and toilet roll. These things aren’t taxed as luxury items so neither should period products.”
“The fact that there’s women out there who are choosing between having dinner for the night or period products it’s ridiculous in this day and age. If you taxed toilet roll there would be complete outrage. But the fact that people don’t really talk about periods means people don’t know that side.”
“There’s a complete stigma towards it and it is a taboo subject. That’s one of the reasons we started the campaign. Our campaign isn’t about glorifying periods. We just feel that if it was to come up, if you were caught short, it shouldn’t be frowned upon to say to someone.”
Football, a sport symbolic with male aggression, sexism and lad culture, seems like one of the most unlikely battlegrounds that would provide sanctuary for those tackling period poverty.
Frank Sinatra said that if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. Perhaps the same applies for those campaigning for an end to period poverty when they see the progress made by Duffy, Slaven and McKinlay in football stadia.
“We started with a petition in March and started writing to Celtic. We wanted to see if there was interest and if people would support us. We aren’t three young girls wanting something for free for the sake of it,” says Duffy of On The Ball’s humble beginnings.
“We knew it would benefit the majority of females that attend, not just us, and not just Celtic Park, all 37 clubs that are providing free period products. I think by the time we spoke to Celtic and had a meeting with them, the petition had reached around 3,000 signatures, and in May the club agreed to implement it. It’s something we still have to sit back and look at.”
While On The Ball has enjoyed much success in sports venues, the Scottish Government has focused on tackling period poverty in places of education. In August 2018, they announced an initiative worth £5.2 million to offer free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities across the country.
At a local government level, North Ayrshire council became the first in Scotland to implement free menstruation products in all council buildings, after the success of last year’s program to roll out products in their secondary schools.
Councillor for North Ayrshire, Joe Cullinane, outlined the progression of North Ayrshire’s campaign. He highlighted that while the Scottish Government’s progression into education is a welcome one, period poverty exists outside of the classroom as well.
“The reaction is overwhelmingly positive, as it was when we did the first scheme in the schools. People have a heightened awareness. As someone who has never experienced a period in my life, the stories of young girls missing school because they can’t afford protection was horrific,” says Cullinane.
“I can’t imagine that, being the father of a young girl myself. But the reason why we went beyond that to look at public buildings is when you talk about period poverty, it clearly doesn’t stop at the school gates. What we found from the schools is that they are no longer a taboo subject, with the boys as well as the girls. That’s where we need to be going.”
Celia Hodson is founder of the organisation Hey Girls, a non-profit social enterprise that has been one of four contract-winners to help deliver the Scottish Government’s new scheme.
“Ours is the only environmentally friendly of the four and the only non-profit as well, so it’s quite interesting that the Government is looking at a different way of doing things. Our boxes are packed by Haven, who has a workforce that is 92 per cent disadvantaged in the labour market due to intellectual or physical disabilities,” says Hodson.
Hodson explains that Hey Girls is in contact with eight councils across Scotland, with those supporting secondary and primary schools: the first provided with pants, tampons, pads and cups; the second with pads only.
“Universities in the main seem to be doing their own thing. Our first one was Glasgow Caledonian. Interestingly their balance was towards reusables. We’ve done stuff in Derbyshire and Lancashire in England too. It’s really about listening to what students want.”
While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has tackled the problem through the recent law, the UK Government highlighted the issue after implementing the infamous ‘tampon tax’ that saw a 5 per cent tax on menstrual products. The money raised was designed to be used for tackling the issue further, but Hodson insists the funds have been spent elsewhere.
A petition on Change.org amassed over 320,000 signatures to scrap the tax, and in March 2016 Parliament accepted a notion to get rid of it. But Brexit put the plans on hold until April of this year, and plans are no further along.
“Scotland is shaming the UK Government,” says Hodson. “The tax raises about £13 million across the year, and it does go to really good causes. But only £1.5 million actually went to anything to do with period poverty. When you drill down into it you can see that it’s only a tiny little percentage.”
“We have a presentation at the House of Commons soon and we will present the case studies and success stories from Scotland. We’re also presenting to the Deputy Mayor of London and the Welsh Assembly. You get the idea that it’s a different group of people looking at it now and there has been much progress.”
So what has the University of Strathclyde done to tackle period poverty?
At Strathclyde, there are 10 different locations for free period products. Previous to this, the University has had a collection point for products in the Union for the last couple of years.
“The uptake of products has actually been slower than we imagined. But anecdotally we’ve heard that students are pleased with the initiative,” says Silja Stepnjov, Strathclyde Student’s Union institutional contact for the Scottish Government’s scheme.
“Our LGBT+ society has been pleased that it is also gender inclusive because we have a neutral collection point in the Advice Hub and the gender neutral toilets in the Union. The delivery instructions from the Scottish Government made that one of their main points. This was very encouraging to see.”
Whether it’s in the classroom, a football ground or somewhere else entirely, period poverty has been a silent scourge on women for far too long. The taboo around a normal bodily function that all women go through has created space for governments to turn a blind eye to this social problem.
Duffy, Hodson, Cullinane and Stepnjov, in their own ways, are just a few examples of inspiring leaders in the field of period poverty that are doing a job they really shouldn’t have to.
We would do well to have more of them, and fewer ‘Rons’.
By Steven Mair