Listen to the episode HERE.
INTRO: Hello, deep thinkers, this is your host Agrita, and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast that questions the deeper and bigger things in life, from intersectional, environmentalism to self-development and everything else in between.
Today I got to talk to the amazing Victoria Abrahams, the operations manager and Uganda program leader for Freedom4Girls, a U.K. based charity that fights period poverty in the U.K. + Kenya and Uganda. In this episode, Victoria talks about everything there is to periods, the social stigma around them and lack of education on the female body which feeds into decreased access to sanitary products for menstruating women and girls that can’t afford them. Victoria’s journey began when her work as a Prison Law Consultant exposed her to the differences in treatment of men and women in criminal justice systems, and now she helps in advocating in the importance of destigmatisation of periods as a way to empower females and dismantle a section of patriarchy.
Agrita: Welcome Victoria, to the show! I hope you’re as excited as I am for this show.
Victoria: Definitely. Thank you so much for having us Agrita.
Agrita: So I think to start off, it would be great if you could tell the audience how Tina Leslie, the founder of Freedom4Girls, came about in starting Freedom4Girls and how did you ended up in getting into the charity?
Victoria: So the short story, short version of the story is that Tina was working on a mother and baby unit project in rural Kenya. This is in 2016, when she noticed that a number of the women and girls who she was working with were unable to support themselves with their period. They didn’t have access to products, and then speaking to more local leaders, she realised that it was a statistic, she said, 60% of women and girls were unable to afford or access some kind of menstrual protection. So from there, she sought to work with a grassroots NGO based in Kenya called the Maji Safi Project (https://majisafigroup.org/female-hygiene/) and they started to create the washable reusable pads. We worked with them to distribute them across the communities, especially for rural women and girls who couldn’t have access, easy access to the disposable ones. So, yeah, that was how the project was born in Kenya, initially elected four years ago. Now, gosh, time really does fly! Then in the U.K., same year, Tina, because her day job was in public health, was speaking with a colleague who said, “that’s amazing but I’ve been contacted by a teacher who has told us that some of their students also meet in school, choosing to have their periods at home because they would rather have it in the comfort of their bedroom or whatever and not have to worry about any issues than if they were to be at school”, whether that be discomfort, potential leaking and so on, because they couldn’t afford products. So from there, she then kind of replicated what we were doing in in Kenya, but with the support of credit providers and the wider market and across West Yorkshire, asking for donations of products and distributing them across the school. So the project really started with the name of Freedom4Girls on the basis that young women and girls really needed that support at an education level, purely because they were getting periods every month. They were deciding to drop out of school completely, a really big issue in Kenya where we work, they were missing those days of school. And if you add up five days a month, every month, it was becoming a problem for so many girls, like opportunities are just being missed.
Victoria: Like not just education but capacities to kind of socialise, feel normal, feel like your life wasn’t on hold and so on. So, yeah, that was way back in 2016. In terms of my involvement, my career path has been really random. I specialise in an area of human rights law when I graduated and worked with prisoners, so I was representing men and women in prison custody and looking at how they progressed with the sentences. And I quickly began to feel a bit of an interest or a specific interest in the women’s estate and how women and female prisoners are treated differently in the criminal justice systems. I had a client actually a long way back, before Tina started this, who had been, she had learning difficulties and she was in her 60s with serious learning difficulties, mental health problems as well, and she had been transferred to an open prison where you were allowed to kind of go in daily. So, every day when you reach that point in terms of privileges, you are able to engage in the community work. And on her return from one of the days that she was volunteering in the community, she was asked to do a strip search and she became very panicked, very worried because she was on her period. And so she didn’t want to have to go through that.
Agrita: Oh god.
Victoria: Exactly, she didn’t want to have to go through the strip search with a male officer, should I add, and so refused from that. The prison government then did what they called an adjudication and disciplinary process and returned her to a closed prison as a sentence, for the type of sentence that she would serve. And this meant serious detriment on her overall access to liberty and her progression. There’ve been no disciplinary issues about her entire sentence, like I said, her offending was much around the fact that she had to deal with many difficulties and mental health issues and purely because she’d had refused to have the strip search because of her period. Sorry, I completely forgot the main point, she didn’t have any products. She was a prisoner. She didn’t have any access to money or products. She was only using toilet paper.
Agrita: That’s crazy.
Victoria: Absolutely crazy. And this, again, like I said, it was way before Tina’s time, when it was 2012, so we’re not talking like back in the 80s, 90s –
Agrita: Yeah exactly!
Victoria: – where conversations around this kind of mental equity movement was new, it was still very much in the era of iPhones and tablets and stuff. So, this just should not have been happening. And that’s what really inspired me to then start to work in much more women sector areas, so specifically within the charity sector. And I was working on a project that was purely for women and girls in Leeds when I moved from London to Leeds, and then I met Tina through that work. So I already had a passion around understanding why women’s issues are so far removed from general conversation, why periods, for example, are so unspoken about. They are private secret issues, even when you look at the things that many of the rest of society look at in terms of periods like, for example, TV adverts, they don’t paint the reality of what it is to have a period. And I think that for me, the more that we try to kind of delve into the understanding of female issues being either so hidden and shaming or completely a false reality to feed into this glamorous idea that women should always be perfect and beautiful and have no sex-based specific issues, that for me was what really pushed me into why this work is so important.
Agrita: Yeah, that is amazing! (laughs)
Agrita: That’s a lot of work you’ve done. You kind of wouldn’t really expect you to go from working in prisons to, you know, a period poverty charity.
Victoria: Yeah. What really drives us as an organisation, me as well, is the fighting around injustice and inequality. So I think the more that you find of, I do understand what you’re saying, it’s very, very different from being a legal representative, especially with a lot of clients who were men, but then moving into the women’s sector, it was a natural progression based on the fact that so much inequality that affects us as females.
Victoria: So that was yeah, that was a decision, really.
Agrita: How would you define period poverty? A lot of people know that, for example, people can’t afford, um, good sanitary products, but they don’t really know what the issue is and not really aware of the extent of the issue. So how would you define poverty?
Victoria: So Freedom4Girls subscribes to the definition, that was born from the Plan International Report 2017, which really was a kickstart in the overall movement and what significant number of the grassroots activists contributed. And we look at it as a three, like a three-pronged, three-layered approach. First and foremost, as you’ve identified, the biggest issue that comes to mind is the lack of affordability or the access to products.
Victoria: The second element, the definition that we find is as important in doing the frontline work is poor education around menstrual health and menstrual cycles in general. So looking at the, as an example, the UK school curriculum of what is menstruation, the only requirement that’s allowed, sorry, is required for girls and boys to learn about in terms of what it consists of, is like a literally a two sentence short little stunt at the end of the page that says that we bleed for 3-7 days because the lining of the uterus breaks down in that space. Nothing else, in terms of the elements of our cycle and what we experience, the differences that can arise from difficult periods and symptoms moving forward from that. Yeah, the education for us is as important because we also always say that you can give someone a product, but if they don’t fully understand why they need that, that in itself still acts as a barrier to their own progression. So, education is as important for us. And again, the third part is again significantly linked, it’s about the stigma and taboos associated with periods. The fact that, like we mentioned before, they are such a shamed issue. Like, something that we’re very passionate about and we engage with some campaigns over the summer on is that the change, the needed change in language, period language. So, the concept that we still call period products sanitary products or menstrual hygiene, and that in itself is again painting a narrative which is not a reality of what periods look like. Periods are normal and natural. There’s nothing to it. There’s no need to feel like you have to sanitise yourself. But meanwhile, that’s just the way that, because as they’re female products and a female health care issue, just the way that the beauty industry has marketed them, and it just fits in a lot more with a narrative of what male people would like us to adhere to.
Agrita: This is the main thing I wanted to talk about in this episode, is this whole social stigma around periods and even just the female body or exploring your female body. We kind of limit these issues, in terms of social stigma for the female body, to places like Kenya or places that are developing and aren’t really able to talk about these things. But people in the UK, just to give myself as an example, I’m probably one of the only one in my friend group that can actually say the word “period” in public.
Agrita: Everybody else is like “I’m on my monthly”.
Victoria: Yes. (laughs)
Agrita: Or they’ll say something else and I find that so weird, like I’ve always said period, as soon as I started I’ve always said period. And I don’t get why in the UK, when everything is really open compared to developing regions, why is it that we are ashamed to say something that is so natural and is part of our bodies?
Victoria: Yeah. Such a good question.
Agrita: Yeah. So how do you help people in the UK get over this stigma that shouldn’t be existing anyways?
Victoria: I love this question because as an organization that does practice in areas of East Africa as well as the UK, we are very, very committed to feed into a narrative that generalises, like you said, all of the stigma issues that are across all of society. Wherever there’s female health issues, there is going to be some stigma attached to that, or there’s going to be some issues in relation to negativity, all lack of knowledge or lack of empowerment and so on. That is a worldwide issue and we see that, like with examples you’ve given, so one activity that we actually run across both education programs, UK and East Africa, is, like what you just said about your friends referred to as the time of the month (laughs). So we have this board, this is one example, we have this board of different flags throughout the world, so there was some there across Africa and across Asia, South Asia, Europe, etc., North America. And you have to match up the slang terminology with the flags. This exists across the world because, like you said, it’s easier for someone to feel as if they can say like a secretive word or something that makes them feel comfortable than to actually say the in word period.
Victoria: And that in itself, again, just really just exemplifies that periods themselves, we’re just not allowed to speak about them. And we attribute that to, again, something, because we see it very much as the dominated issues are very much male-heavy in society. Like, I hate to jump on the buzzword of patriarchal at the moment, but that’s what we really believe. Like if it was male health related issues, for example, the biggest one being condoms are free, but we’ve had to campaign our hearts out for menstrual products being freely available, where it’s okay to have sex, but it isn’t to have a period.
Victoria: I think every level from a very young age, women and girls, female people, are made to feel like issues that they go through are secondary to their male counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some fairly big similarities between young people in many ways, but simultaneously like the way that young women and girls develop is very different. And not even just an internal and physical level but emotional level, too, and then if you look at the add-ons that society brings into the scenario, women and girls and female people are almost punished as a result of this experience that they go through. If we weren’t, then why don’t these adverts with the blue liquid on maxi pads, why wouldn’t it be red? One of my favourite –
Agrita: So true, yeah!
Victoria: So true! One of my favourite activists and comedians/writers Dane Baptiste done this amazing sketch on why is it that mandem are happy to talk about violence and blood in a situation, but when it’s about getting with the girl and finding out that she’s on her period, they freak out.
Victoria: Why does that happen? And again, it just us definitely comes down to sex-based inequalities that are really perpetuated from a very young age. But, you know, even top-down, from this idea that systemically we are governed by what men want and how they want it, so that for us is something we really try and bring out of the young people that we work with. We ask them to really question like, a lot of them as well, as you can imagine Agrita, the ages of 13, 14, and when you got older people standing in front of them saying “girls, you can talk to us about your periods, tell us about this experience”, half of them will like –
Agrita: Yeah, freeze!
Victoria: Yeah, exactly they freeze and just say “no, I want to”, which we completely respect as well, but I think even having those initial conversations by saying it is OK to talk about your period, in a way that is completely comfortable to you, even opening the door of some form is important. Otherwise, anything else, and we always caveat is with anything else that you’re experiencing whether it’s health related or mental health related, the likelihood is they are not going to want to speak up about it. And that is a problem. And it’s exactly the same four issues that our beautiful babies in East Africa are dealing with, as well as the girls that we work with back here. And, you know, the one thing that I’m so proud of about our projects as well is that we offer what we call an “pen-struation pals” scheme so the girls in Uganda write letters to the girls back here and they share their experiences of periods.
Agrita: Oh, wow, I love stuff like that!
Victoria: Yeah, it’s a real, me too, it’s a real empowerment and confidence boosting activity that we really embedded because shared stories bring solidarity and there is nothing stronger than solidarity and sisterhood. And like I said, because a lot of the time as a woman, I felt that even when I was younger, even though I’m one of the ones who like you I’m fine to say the word “period” because my mom always made me feel like I could say period. I also went to an all-girls school so that was another reason why I wasn’t embarrassed but a lot of my friends –
Victoria: Yea so that’s a good thing but a lot of my friends would like that. And we really want to be able to champion experience of women and girls and female people because that is unique and it’s beautiful and it’s not spoken about enough.
Agrita: I also love how you can kind of see this difference or similarities between Kenya and here as well, where most people would think, okay, it’s going to be much harder in Kenya for people to be talking about, period, and to be getting those products. But when you see the same issue is still prevalent in the U.K., you can see how much patriarchy is like dominating our society.
Victoria: I entirely agree, it’s something that we’ve been trying to add on to the notion of our period poverty campaign for a while now, that whatever that is, male dominance across industries that affect female health, female health will not be a priority. We are really, really proud of a few projects at the moment that combine sort of canvasing men and people who don’t menstruate about their understanding of menstruation and specifically the industries that are top-heavy in male management or male decision makers and bottom-heavy in female frontline workers or staff. And we want to understand basically what is available to the women on the ground to support their periods, especially for industries that are very kind of labour intensive for women. So a lot of cleaning industries like what are the options available for them to sort support their periods, especially when the decision makers are male heavy and like we said, who don’t have any clue what periods are. So we are really pushing this notion this year of education on all levels, not just for young people to feel empowered but across society and in different industries, in different sectors, understanding what it is to have a period, what that really means, not just the two sentences that we get in the UK curriculum, what does a period entail? Because, especially when women get older, women come off contraception, going through their menopause. There’s a whole realm of symptoms. Women should not feel like they are being punished for that or not be able to be supported. You wouldn’t expect an any other type of health issue or physical potential disabilities to be an issue at work, we need to produce an inclusive space for women and girls at all levels, so yeah, watch our projects that are coming up that address those issues.
Agrita: That is great. I’ve actually seen so many people say that they don’t want to be doing labour-intensive work or field work because of this issue. Like, “oh, if I start on the field, if I start my period on the field, what’s going to happen”.
Agrita: I mean, even some of the field trips I’ve been in, because field trips are a major part of my degree.
Victoria: Of course.
Agrita: Starting on the field is just so annoying, and then you start getting cramps as well, and then there’s no toilet nearby. So, you can really see the gaps when it comes to supporting females and the processes that they experience.
Victoria: Exactly. I totally agree with you, I think, and that’s something, when you look at the education side, is so directly linked with the stigmas, because I think, there was a really good piece of research that came out recently that was talking about how women do feel when they’re at work, and so many have said that they would rather say that they’ve got food poisoning and needing to go home because of that than actually admit to having an issue related to that period because it was just too difficult for them to say “yeah, I’ve had to a period-related issue”. And so if you were on a field trip or something and you had to say “no, I’m going to have to go to the toilet”, or if you add in the lack of education, even if it’s an individual, obviously I’m saying you plurally, generally, women and girls don’t track their periods –
Victoria: or recognise the specific symptoms. So, what we’re looking at is, you could be borderline prepared for the fieldtrip, as an example, either be prepared with products, be prepared with pain relief and so on. But a lot of the time, because it’s such an unspoken issue already, people don’t feel prepared or empowered to navigate their lives, mindful of the fact that this is a monthly occurrence with all the extra annoyances that it brings. So, we really want to be able to normalize periods so much so that it doesn’t infiltrate into opportunities and emotional wellbeing of anybody who has a period.
Agrita: Would you also say that stigmas around periods or just the female body is also because women aren’t kind of encouraged to explore their bodies or to actually find out about their bodies? For example, so many wrongly call the vulva the vagina.
Agrita: Um, I started my period when I was 11, so about to be 12, and I thought that was so wrong.
Agrita: Like, how could I be starting so early compared to some of my friends that started in Year 8 so when they were 14-15.
Victoria: I get that because I was in year 7 so about to turn 12.
Agrita: And if anyone in primary school found out you had a period, you started your period, everyone would just kind of make fun of it, especially the guys.
Victoria: I know, I know. It’s so depressing when you really think about it, and I just hate this idea that there’s so many people suffering in silence.
Victoria: It’s really sad.
Agrita: Yes. Yeah. So, it’s like when I started, I started crying because I was like, what’s happening to my body? I don’t, I’ve heard about it in sex education at school, but I still don’t understand it.
Victoria: That is so sad.
Agrita: Yeah (laughs) Yeah it’s just it’s crazy how women don’t know a lot about their bodies. I’m like I’m still learning about it and I’m 20, so you can think how an 11 year old would kind of feel.
Victoria: Yeah, well, I’m in my thirties and I still don’t know enough about my body.
Victoria: It’s because, anything that I do know is out of self-research and out of passion for ensuring that other women and girls don’t suffer like I do for different things. I’ve had so many friends go through so many different health related issues linked to the hormones. That’s a big thing for me, that’s a passion for me. Our hormonal health is not spoken about.
Victoria: We don’t really, I think I agree with you entirely that exploring our bodies is a big thing, and I feel like a lot of that does come under sort of sexual health. But understanding for me personally, our hormonal cycles are really key because it really does impact so many parts of our lives, including our mental health, our decision making, it’s a part of our cycle that we have more of a stronger creative brain and are more motivated, elements like diet plans, schedules and fitness. As women and girls, especially when your hormonal cycles normalise. For example, say, if you’re coming off the contraceptive pill in your mid to late twenties or whatever, learning about what works for you and what your month looks like. It’s so important to actually feel in control of decisions that you’re making and also not feel like “I didn’t see this coming”, because when you were much younger, from your teens upwards, your cycle, not only do you have more energy but your cycle isn’t stable as much. So, women and girls again that almost punish themselves because this idea that we’re supposed to show up consistently as men do all the time, every day, and it’s not reality for us. There will be, you know, you could be one of the really lucky ones that has a very stable peaks and troughs, with a different way that hormones interact, but so many women experience hormone imbalance and that looks different depending for their different issues, different genetic issues or other environmental factors. The fact that we don’t have that knowledge, or we’re not encouraged to have that knowledge is really frustrating, in my opinion. I’ve had to really self-learn a lot of stuff and going through my own health issues, to then look at how does it impact with my hormones and then seeing that reflected in so many of my other friends’ experiences as well. It’s very, very simple things. But I guarantee that when you go to your doctor, as a woman or girl, and you present yourself with X, Y, Z symptoms, they will not look at your hormones as a as an issue in the first instance. They will never say, “well, actually, let me consider doing hormone samples for a one day, five day –
Victoria: 28 day of your cycle”. It wouldn’t be something that would be their first thought and even when, if I tell you Agrita, one of my health issues started when I missed two years of having periods.
Agrita: Oh God.
Victoria: They didn’t ever check, yeah they didn’t ever check the hormones. So luckily –
Agrita: That’s crazy!
Victoria: So crazy! I know I’m not isolated in this. I know I’m not, like luckily for, you know, the good sides of social media and the activism that happens on Instagram. It’s so, provides so much more information and a community of people that go through this. So, like I said, I know I’m not alone on that and it shouldn’t take people to experience difficult times, or even just have to really forcibly advocate for themselves before their GP for this to be taken seriously. This should be dealt with as an issue for females everywhere, as opposed to how would you know, like we said before, that patriarchy governing all levels of systems and organisational structures and filtering down in health care, it’s happening. If it didn’t, why aren’t our hormones being checked as regularly?
Agrita: If our health care systems aren’t even aware of what a female body can go through, then you can’t really see how these health care systems can help us. You kind of start feeling helpless in a sense.
Victoria: Definitely. I would, I mean, again, I would definitely feel helpless because if they’re not looking at all things that could be availably wrong to someone who’s female, that means that they are giving you answers that aren’t correct. So, and, you know, like I said, with the Instagram communities that come across with different networks of people who have similar health issues, they’ll go back and forth and back and forward. Is it a thyroid issue? Is it, I don’t know, stress related? The term psychosomatic became so synonymous with me just appearing at a doctor’s place and them telling me “don’t you think you’re stressed” and I’m like (laughs) “I’m an intelligent person, I understand my body, please –
Victoria: – just please these investigations, and not once was it a female hormonal health related investigation.
Agrita: Yeah, it’s crazy. Obviously, Freedom4Girls has done so much work, you’ve already told me so much about it. But could you kind of give some of the main achievements that the charity has made so far, maybe some success stories of girls that you’ve worked with, whether in Kenya or the UK? And what else does a charity want to achieve?
Victoria: We have achieved so much. I’m so proud of our little team and I want to actually give us a little shout out because all of us do this around other full time and part time jobs. None of us, like, staff.
Victoria: We don’t, we do this as volunteers around other commitments, personal and professional. So, to have achieved what we have, we really should be giving ourselves a pat on the back, so big shout out to my teammates and everyone else that supports us. In terms of success stories, of our core business, what we really are proud of is not just the product provision, an element of our work where we are donating thousands of packs especially during in lockdown, in the pandemic. We were donating like £4000 a month of period products.
Victoria: Yeah, so really understanding the landscape in which we work as a grassroots charity was really important to us. The education program, so proud of my colleagues, Lucy and Chloe, who have helped develop what we started last year because we really do go the extra mile. We don’t like, everything that you said Agrita, in terms of what is important to focus on in terms of the science and the biology of what we go through, but we, the empowerment element and the confidence building element is as important for us, and activities that we’ve developed to really engage young people to feel that, I’m so proud of it, it’s really unique and we love delivering it. And then the passion that comes from my colleague Sheona who does all of the sewing workshops. We are as passionate about choice in terms of our philosophy of products. We appreciate that not everybody is able to work around reusable, washable menstrual products. But for those who are environmentally friendly, plastic and chemical free and economically viable, our driver. We are now in an era where climate change is very real and contributing towards environmentally friendly periods are really, for us, are a big part of that. The fact that periods have been commoditised to these plastic disposable products, throughout my lifetime, everything, you know, things started to move in the direction of what we champion, and to do that we run sewing workshops in the community where we create washable, reusable pads. They cost between £7-9, they last you for over 3 years and they are donated to some of our most in need beneficiaries. That in itself is an achievement because like I said, if you look at us as a team, as volunteers, giving up our spare time and being able to rally our community together in Leeds for these products, and for people to buy into the notion that reassessing their way of dealing with their periods is an important thing to do, not for themselves, for the greater good. That is something that we really do, like I said, back for. And then if we look at the wider campaign that we do, that we have to have been involved in the Department of Education’s task force where they eventually provided free products in schools at the end of this year. And there’s been, you know, ongoing achievements, Tina has got some awards, I’ve had some small awards.
Victoria: Yeah, for contributions not to just the period poverty world, but also just as grassroots activists, like it’s been so important for us to maintain that level. I’m not from Leeds, but Leeds is my home and my heart and being able to give back to different groups because we are such a diverse city, like the representation that we have across the whole city with different groups of women with different needs, different backgrounds, different health needs. Yeah, we always want to represent those groups. We are happy and privileged to work with so many of the support agencies and beneficiaries so that in itself is an achievement. Did you ask me for a success story?
Victoria: One of my favourite from the groups that I worked with in Uganda was a young woman who, she’d had to drop out of school, she was just 15, because in Uganda you have to pay to access any level of education. And yeah, she had to drop out. She was 15, she essentially was going to be scouted for a, I think it was a football or basketball scholarship from a college or further education institution in the capital. She had to drop out of school completely because she couldn’t afford products, so when we worked with her, we not only encouraged her through the product donation from the sewing workshops we run in Kenya to stay onboard, but also to work with us to feel confident and develop her as an ambassador. She was then working on how to encourage younger people to engage with people they trust about their periods and how to manage their periods. She was actually, this was the heart-warming thing last year, she was showing the girls how to put a, one of the reusable pads on a pair of knickers so they understood it because the products we create in Kenya are in two parts. They are not the typical winged that you put it on and go, like you have to put the winged bit on and then put the liner inside the winged bit.
Agrita: Ah okay.
Victoria: Yeah. It was successful, she stayed in school from the donations that we’d given and developed herself as a young leader in this ambassador program that Freedom4Girls had run, and then was successful in her scholarship.
Agrita: That’s amazing!
Victoria: Yeah! That was a really heart-warming one for me, but honestly there are so many. If you, if anyone is ever privileged enough to meet Tina and the stories that she tells about her work not only in Keyna and her team there, but also in the UK, we’ve had some really difficult, really difficult and complex cases come in through lockdown. Especially with women who needed access to products who are on the poverty line and had contracted COVID and needed support. There have been some challenging times for us, um, but the kind of, we don’t need this or ever ask for it, but the gratitude that people show us, again periods are really hard things to go through, so combine that with you know, living in poverty, living in close proximity to people that had the virus at that time.
Victoria: Different emotional and mental health issues. Some women that we work with are homeless, some of them are fleeing domestic violence and seeking refuge. If you compare all of that with also getting your period, it can be horrendous, so the fact that we are there as not just as someone to drop off products for them but as a listening ear, like “ah I’ve had really bad pains this week and really didn’t need that” blah, blah, blah. Like I mentioned before, the solidarity that women should be encouraged to feel between each other for this experience that we go through that is so unique, that is so important, that for us is part of the success stories too, that we are normalising the conversation.
Agrita: Yeah that’s what I was gonna ask you about aswell, it must have been so hard for women in the pandemic, especially those that are furloughed and don’t have that source of income or it’s not strong enough to be providing them with food let alone sanitary products. So, do you think that, um, the use of the products that you donate to people has increased because of the pandemic?
Victoria: Yeah, it has. If we look at our statistics even before lockdown, so we are looking at the end of our financial year 2019/2020, we were donating roughly between 700-900 packs on probably a two-month basis. Then we got into the pandemic, height of the pandemic during April till Easter, we donated just in the space of April and May, 7000 products.
Agrita: Oh gosh, yeah.
Victoria: Not just individual but packs of products. Um, and we know aswell that there’s some research, that I mentioned before, from Plan International that kind of spearheaded a lot of the research around women and girls, aged between 14-21, looking at what period poverty means to them. We know that from 2017 the report, the data showed 1 in 10 girls had been missing school or were in a position that they weren’t able to afford period products. The data from the studies done in May from the same number and demographics of girls was 3 in 10, so we know there has been an increase in period poverty because of the pandemic.
Victoria: We always say now aswell like, 80% or 85% of the donations that we are making are to adult women and the women groups that support them. We know this from experience and also on the ground, if you are an adult woman and you are getting your period and you yourself can’t afford products or are getting free products, and you have daughters, you are going to pass them to your daughters.
Agrita: Of course, yeah.
Victoria: It’s always mothers that make those sacrifices. We’ve got that in anecdotal and data aswell. The problem is so much larger than what the dominant research is showing.
Agrita: Yeah, I mean for any sort of issue that’s affecting women, especially mothers, you can always see that the mothers are going to be sacrificing, and for periods you can’t sacrifice. Maybe you can cut down on how much food you have or things like that, but for periods, if you’re bleeding you’re bleeding. You can’t be sharing a pad –
Agrita: – or reducing how many pads you use, or if you are using a reusable one, you know you need to have that there. Yeah, so it’s really sad to see women, especially mothers having to sacrifice for things that they can’t sacrifice.
Victoria: Yeah, we totally agree, and for us the, because a lot of campaigning has gone into the education side of it, and typically being with girls from high school age and onwards, the campaign has been focused around their needs quite rightly but it does mean there is again a gap in attention within the movement for older women and the sacrifices that they have to make.
Victoria: Their experiences themselves, everything that goes into, as I mentioned before, the development of the symptoms that you can experience around your periods if you also have additional health issues that become more obvious or prevalent when you are of a certain age. So yeah, there is a lot more work to be done, there’s a lot more advocacy and awareness raising needed for adult women, erm, and Freedom4Girls are gonna keep pushing that as long as we can.
Agrita: How do women that are wanting to access your products, how can they get them. So can you get them from your website or could anyone call up?
Victoria: So our website has a donation request page.
Victoria: We don’t have, as we are volunteers, we don’t have an office line so the website is usually best. There is a “contact us” https://www.freedom4girls.co.uk/contact/ page so if you wanted to discuss more than just access to products and anything else that we offer, then send us an email @freedom4girls.co.uk. We also encourage support agencies that are dealing directly with women who, for example, if you are a support agency that looks at mental health needs for women that go through domestic violence, typically you are also providing them with food parcels, because a lot of them are living in poverty, and within the food parcels we will donate products to them. You can either contact us if you are a support agency, someone doing community-based work with different groups of women or an individual.
Agrita: Amazing. In terms of the sustainability side of things, I’m very guilty in using the disposable period pads. I haven’t gotten used to the whole reusable thing.
Agrita: So, do you help people in using reusable sanitary products and kind of getting used to it, because the whole process of washing something that’s bloody –
Agrita: (laughs) It’s obviously not great for everyone! Or, you kinda need to get used to it so how do you normalise it?
Victoria: I love that you have mentioned that because I’m actually someone that is quite naïve to, like, bodily fluids so stuff like that doesn’t really gross me out.
Victoria: But then when we speak to most people, this is again a survey that we did in our education program, like how would you feel washing this out, and the girls in Uganda were like, they stood infront of the classroom saying “you touch it?” and I’m thinking, why is this a weird thing? (laughs)
Victoria: I totally get that. I lot of people have commented on that actually, so what we do, again it’s a combined approach. We talk about the different ways that you can clean the products that are comfortable for you, and we also talk about completely removing the incorrect and distressing narrative around periods. They are completely normal, completely safe, your menstrual blood is completely safe, you just need to wash your hands after you do that.
Victoria: This is the worst-case scenario, we have worked with women who are in slums in Kenya and who’ve been unable to access running water on multiple occasions and they have our menstrual cups. So, what they do instead is, they just, and this is going to gross some people out even more, is that they just urinate on the cup because it’s a self-cleaning silicone.
Agrita: Ah, okay.
Victoria: That in itself is enough to remove issues around bacteria and problems with the cup. So, yeah, it’s again, for us it’s much more about normalising and going back to the comment you made earlier about getting used to your body.
Agrita: Hmm, yeah.
Victoria: Like, it’s a big part and parcel of the process. The other side of it is, you know, lucky enough to be part of the west or if you are in an area with a washing machine. Literally, shove it in the washing machine.
Agrita: (laughs) Yeah.
Victoria: It cannot go wrong, like shove your underwear or your menstrual pads that are reusable, washable, in the washing machine, it will come out and it will be fine. That’s how I got used to it anyways. I’m not a menstrual cup person, I’ve not managed to try it but I have difficult periods.
Victoria: Knickers and the pads for me work so, like I said, I’m not a squeamish person.
Victoria: Even my sister uses them now so (laughs). I’m sure we can convince more people!
Agrita: Yeah, I mean it just shows that we kind of see periods as really dirty, you know it’s just like “oh it’s blood so it’s bad”, you know, you don’t want to touch it.
Agrita: It’s smelly. We try to pick out all the bad stuff about it when there is nothing wrong.
Victoria: Yeah I totally agree with that. It’s almost like we convince that we are supposed to be grossed out by it. Like, coming back to your point of being at school and if someone got their period at primary and everyone’s like “oh stay away from them”. Why? Like, what is it that’s made you feel that this is not something normal? Because it can’t be the blood. Don’t get me wrong like, I recognise that people are squeamish around blood generally, a lot of people don’t want to watch those A&E programs or people won’t want to watch gore films. Blood isn’t that nice however, it [periods] is the most normal form of blood. It is something that bears life, like there is nothing wrong with it at all, so –
Victoria: I do feel that there is an element that we have, we’re almost conditioned from a very young age that it’s disgusting, rather than critically analysing, is it? If we did, then we would be like “oh I get it”. Like (laughs) it’s normal so I think we just need to be better at having that conversation.
Agrita: Yeah and just kind of forgetting that it’s all part of the menstrual cycle and it’s not unnecessary.
Agrita: If you talk about horror films, people actually liking seeing people (laughs) murder people or something, that’s all unnecessary but this blood is important.
Victoria: Yeah, the artist has a good piece where the guy is just munching on popcorn looking at a gore film, it’s quite a realistic –
Victoria: It’s a historic film, and you know it’s gore everywhere, and then (laughs) the man sees a menstrual pad and he’s like “oh my god” –
Victoria: – and throws his popcorn everywhere.
Victoria: Yeah, literally! So, men are funny.
Agrita: (laughs) To kind of wrap up everything, what is the overall message that Freedom4Girls wants to deliver and what are the key steps that individuals can take to help reduce or even eliminate period poverty?
Victoria: Our overall message is just what I kind of talked about in this entire podcast which is, please don’t be scared of your periods and please help other people work on to not be scared of their periods either. They are SO normal and if we don’t start to encourage the conversation around them being just a standard thing, you know, British people love talking about the weather, we are so, you know, we’ll moan about when it’s too hot like –
Victoria: – periods should be that normal too.
Victoria: We really want the next generation, this movement, this wave of feminism now, we want the next generation to really not have to be advocating for this new normal where something that is akin to being female is shamed. If you look at some of the really awful case studies around the world, there was a young woman who committed suicide last year, coming up to the one year anniversary actually, because she had stained, her period blood had gone through her school skirt and she has stained her skirt and she was shamed by her teacher and school mates for doing that, so that was a huge tragedy. Some women who have been banished to what they call “menstrual hubs” in certain parts of the world when they get their periods and go through either freezing, starving or smoke inhalation. Again, we should be unapologetic about this, men just need to get used to the fact that it’s something that we can’t help. Like, there are so many disgusting things that men do (laughs).
Victoria: You know the “lad” behaviour that women just turn a [blind] eye to, you know, either get involved with or just ignore completely. You know, for this issue, we are being forced to have this experience as a secret and that really needs to change ‘coz for us there are bigger systemic inequalities, sex-based inequalities that play, menstruation is gonna to continue to be one of those things. That means that the overall conversation around sex-based inequalities is never going to achieve what it needs to, there is always going to be this issue that women that want to get pregnant should be demoted or not progress for the same reason. It is all part and parcel the same thing.
Victoria: In terms of helping period poverty generally, like we said the definition, it’s the the products, the stigma and the education. I think always remember when moving forward, don’t be scared of your periods, don’t be ashamed of them, don’t feel like you have to sing from the rooftops about it! I want to be everyone’s advocate but that’s not for everybody. Just make sure you know that you can talk to someone, who you trust, about it.
Victoria: And, encourage other people to do the same, because the more it becomes the norm, the less will be the circumstances in which people are punished or put themselves down for it. We’ve got some amazing projects coming up that we would love people to get involved in, particularly around the racial injustices that happen across female health care, that project is called “Black women’s menstrual health” https://www.instagram.com/p/CE1IdkZHgAS/ where we are looking at supporting women and girls of African and the Caribbean heritage to understand how they are able to advocate themselves in front of healthcare professionals better, as well as raising awareness amongst healthcare professionals in terms of their own unconscious biases and how they deal with Black women and girls and the issues that they go through. There is a lot of evidence, and hopefully we are going to be contributing to that evidence by doing some surveys and focus groups, in terms of why Black women and girls are treated differently in health, and particularly for us, menstrual health.
Victoria: And then, and for anyone that wants to really, you know, contribute to us on an education level and empowerment level, the project that I’m really proud of and am running alongside my colleague Esther is the “what advice would you give your younger self” and it’s a letters project.
Agrita: Yes! I’m going to be joining that aswell, I’ll be sending over a letter.
Victoria: Oh brilliant, I’m so pleased!
Victoria: So pleased. So, ultimately it is me as a 30 year old woman, can I remember a point in my life where I would want what I know now, who I am as a woman now, to be my own best friend at that time. If I can find that person, which I know I can through different things, so what advice would I give them? So I’m going to write a letter to that version of Victoria and I’m gonna tell her what she needs to hear, what she should do and how she should feel. We are not only going to incorporate that in our education sessions, but we are also going to put it together in a gorgeous book with some of the letters from Uganda, Kenya, from our education program here, some artwork from some of our amazing feminist, activist artists who have worked and supported us from back in the day and make it into a book so that we can screen more about this issue and do a bit of fundraising to continue the work that Freedom4Girls and other grassroot charities around the very real but awful issue of period poverty.
Agrita: Please let us know when the book comes out, because I’m gonna be the first one to buy it!
Victoria: Ahh, brilliant (laughs) and I expect your letter in there aswell Agrita (laughs).
Agrita: Yeah, definitely!
Victoria: Brilliant. Yeah.
Agrita: Thank you so much Victoria for coming on, you know, you have such a busy schedule I can imagine so thank you for taking out some of your time to come out here and talk about period poverty and how period and not talking about them is just contributing to gender inequality, female inequality.
Victoria: Perfect, yeah, thank you so much for having us, it’s my absolute pleasure. Everything you are doing aswell, just to kind of put us on a platform and utilise your platform is so important to so, thank you and hats off to you too.
OUTRO: Such an informative and super engaging episode, I’ve been wanting to discuss period poverty as long as I’ve been running this podcast, so this episode was really special for me. To participate in the letters project and to find out more ways in which you can support Freedom4Girls in their work, head over to my website mindfullofeverything.home.blog. Remember to subscribe to the newsletter and the podcast on your favourite podcast apps. Connect with me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. You can also support Mind Full of Everything through purchasing my fully recycled acrylic pin badges from my website and leaving reviews for the show. Stay positive, stay safe, and until the next episode, happy listening.