Yesterday, I headed to London to protest against the huge taxes levied on sanitary products — and the shocking impact this has had on the thousands of young girls and women across the UK who are on the poverty line. It’s Time for a Bloody Revolution, one protestor had scrawled in red paint on a cardboard sign. And a revolution is what it felt like; the energy of the protest was palpable.


 

As I listened in awe to all of the amazing women who got up on the podium to speak out about a subject which has been a taboo for centuries, I realised that there are in fact two issues which need to be addressed.

One is the lack of education and discourse about periods. Girls are learning about periods too late; some get their first period having never spoken to anyone about what they are and why we get them. This of course only fuels the taboo, and women feel embarrassed, ashamed and ignored.

To me, it seems astonishing that it has taken so many years to reach the point where we are finally able to discuss periods comfortably. As singer and guest speaker Girli told me, ‘we are conditioned to think periods are a bad thing’. She is right. They are seen as messy, as embarrassing, as unpleasant and something to keep quiet about.

PERIOD POVERTY: the taboo that needs to be tackledWhat this protest taught me was that this really needs to change. YouTube star Tanya Burr told the crowd, ‘we need to normalise periods’. Couldn’t agree more.

The second issue is the price women have to pay — dubbed the ‘tampon tax’ — for something which is not a luxury, never has been and never will be. Condoms are free on the NHS, so why shouldn’t sanitary products? Sex is a choice, while periods most certainly are not.

Can you imagine being twelve or thirteen years old and having to go to school with a sock sellotaped to your knickers because you can’t afford a pack of tampons? That is the reality for some girls on the poverty line living in the UK. One in ten girls are on free school meals in this country, and almost half of these girls do not have access to basic sanitary products.

One woman, who admitted she had never been particularly politically motivated until her daughter urged her to go to the ‘free periods’ protest, told me: ‘I think it should be a human rights issue’. Yes, it absolutely should — every female in the world has a right to dignity.

PERIOD POVERTY: the taboo that needs to be tackled

Amika George, the eighteen-year-old who  launched this campaign halfway through her A-Level studies, ended the evening with a reminder that we need to ‘keep the conversation going’ about periods. Talk about it with everyone, including your brothers, your fathers, your boyfriends, she urged.

This is incredibly important — too many men are afraid to broach the subject of periods, to speak about this issue which is so central to women’s bodies and women’s rights. One teenage boy whom I spoke to told me that he believed little had been achieved so far in terms of tackling period poverty because it is men who hold all the power — ‘look at who has the leverage’, he said. ‘Parliament is full of men’. The sad truth is, he is right.

PERIOD POVERTY: the taboo that needs to be tackledBut from the male turnout at the protest, it seems there is hope. It was refreshing to see so many men holding up signs and cheering passionately alongside the masses of girls and women.

However, there was one thing which I felt was being missed. There was talk of bringing down the Conservative Government and feminist activist Grace Campbell told the crowd, ‘Theresa May needs to stop f**king about with Brexit!’ She also said that she wanted to ‘destroy the Daily Mail‘. The protest became distinctly anti-establishment. Yet crucially, it is the Establishment, it is Theresa May, it is Justine Greening who we need to reach out to most, because they have the power to actually initiate much-needed change.

Labour MP Paula Sherriff informed us of our Education Secretary’s response when she was confronted about the issue of period poverty. Back in October, Greening told the House of Commons that parents should take responsibility for ‘educating’ their children about ‘how they will approach adult life’ and implied that nothing more can or will be done.

I certainly agreed with a protester’s remark that Justine Greening is ‘incredibly ignorant and out of touch’, but regardless of how much it made my blood boil, she is the one who can lift that tax and make sanitary products free for girls on free school meals

We want to win this battle, and we can win this battle, but it is only going to happen if we start trying to work with the Government, not against it. The British public feel angry, ignored and disillusioned, but we are not going to achieve Amika George’s goal by lambasting the very people who can facilitate change.

 

All images by Nicholas Phillips