Period Activism Needs an Eco Makeover
Isabella Millington of OHNE on how to tackle period poverty without harming the planet. OHNE is a bespoke, organic tampon subscription service dedicated to smashing period taboos, fighting period poverty, and hustlin’ for healthy vaginas everywhere.
What is ‘period poverty’ beyond the buzzword? Period poverty is having a bit of a (long overdue) moment right now. Everyone seems to be talking about it or campaigning against it… which is incredible, obviously. But what actually is it? Well, to put it in the most simple definition, period poverty is the inability to sufficiently manage your period due to lack of money and access to other resources. Depending on location and severity of the period poverty one might experience, it can mean being unable to afford sanitary products, missing school, work, or social engagements regularly because you are unable to manage your menstrual flow, as well as being unable to access facilities to keep yourself clean, healthy, and from feeling unsafe or vulnerable for the duration of your period.
Period poverty is a global phenomenon. In the UK, the conversation focuses largely on young girls and other people who have period missing school due to their periods, donating sanitary products to homeless shelters as homeless women are often most at risk of period poverty; while organisations such as Bloody Good Period focus on providing period products and other sanitary protection for asylum seekers. In other countries, period poverty can look very different. In Nepal, menstruating girls and women are banished to huts or animal sheds outside, forced to spend the duration of their period alone and incredibly vulnerable to the elements because of prevailing superstitions about a menstruating woman bringing bad luck on the things or people she touches. This practise is against the law but, as you might imagine, the law is very hard to enforce or police. In countries such as Zambia, lack of access to adequate period products leads to too many girls missing school because of their periods and, all to often, is a contributing factor in them dropping out entirely and missing out on the education which could improve their lives long-term.
Cultural attitudes, both at home and abroad, which see menstruation as dirty and taboo prevent further discussion on the matter - the lack of conversation leads to a lack of education and understanding which, in an endless, exhausting cycle, perpetuates the taboo.
Big brand, unethically produced period product companies pledging to combat period poverty with single-use, pad-to-a-pack donations is not going to cut it, I’m afraid. It’s time we started to demand more from the period product industry itself rather than allowing the problem of period poverty to be removed from the industry which profits off periods in the first place. Many mainstream brands, such as the one I won’t name here but yes it is the one you’re thinking of, have recently hopped on board the period poverty campaign game. Which, without a doubt, is bloody brilliant for increasing awareness around the issue; but the ways in which they’re contributing is just not good enough, frankly. For a start, one pad being donated for every selfie posted and appropriately hashtagged on Instagram or for every pack bought is not going to do enough in the short-term or have any lasting effect in the long-term. Secondly, we’re still talking about single-use, disposable products riddled with toxins and nasty chemicals that have a terrible impact on the environment and should not be going anywhere near anyone’s vagina, much less donated in the name of charity to people for whom consumer choice is a privilege they don’t have.
We don’t have to make a decision between helping people and being environmentally conscious. We can find ways of combating period poverty whilst also keeping in mind that the period product industry has a terrible record when it comes to caring for the environment that desperately needs righting.
At OHNE, we’ve partnered with School Club Zambia, which is an incredible, grassroots social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of young people in rural Zambia. We donate money from every sale we make to their Girl’s Programme in particular, which works to address the problems specifically faced by young girls to improve their experience of education and keep them in school for as long as possible.
When School Club Zambia (SCZ) first started the programme, 71% of the 11-13 year old girls they were working with confessed to knowing little or nothing about the female body. 31% of girls reported using either a piece of cloth or nothing at all while they were menstruating. 34% were already regularly missing school due to their period.
SCZ implements a three-tiered approach to combating period poverty in rural Zambia. Firstly, they are building a brand-new toilet block in every school they work with, proving girls with the safe, clean space they need to manage their periods throughout the school day. The second part of the approach focuses on running workshops which teaches the students (including the boys - ending the stigma is not solely on the shoulders of women!) about menstruation and reproductive health. Finally, they equip the girls with the skills they need to make their own, reusable, sustainable sanitary pads from local resources - skills which enable them to help other women in their community and which are transferable to a career later in life. Pretty bloody great, right?
What SCZ has proved is that there’s no need to pick a side when it comes to advocating for good causes. If you wouldn’t put a product chock-full of toxins up your own vagina, why would you expect anyone else to do the same, even - no, especially - if they can’t afford to make the choice for themselves? Similarly, if you care about the planet, you don’t have to compromise your plastic-free and sustainable consumer choices
At OHNE, we believe that every woman has the right to manage her period without shame and with dignity, which is why we’re committed to supporting efforts to eradicate period poverty both at home and abroad, while maintaining our ethos of making the best choices we can for the environment, always.