Period Poverty, University of Edinburgh

by Lauren Galligan

Image: The Period Poverty Facebook page

Lauren Galligan shares her comments from the Reproductive Justice roundtable on March 8 hosted by GENDER.ED and IASH. She talked about Period Poverty Edinburgh, which is a grassroot non-profit organisation that was set up on campus in 2018 to end period poverty and the stigma surrounding periods. Their main goals have always been to do the on-the-ground work to meet demands for products by collecting and distributing period pads and tampons to organisations in the community.  

My name is Lauren and I am the Undergraduate Manager of Period Poverty Edinburgh, which is a grassroot non-profit organisation that was set up on campus in 2018 to end period poverty and the stigma surrounding periods. Our main goals have always been to do the on-the-ground work to meet demands for products as and when they arrive by collecting and distributing period pads and tampons to organisations in the community. Some of the organisations we work closely with are Simon Community Scotland (previously known as Streetwork), Edinburgh Women’s Shelter and the Hygiene Bank.

We were set up in 2018 by Saffron Roberts, who was a University of Edinburgh student at the time. Saffron was really aware of, and passionate about, the huge impact that period poverty has on people who experience it and wanted to do something to help. There is a similar organisation in Manchester that first inspired her to set up Period Poverty in Edinburgh which, at the time, was lacking in groups that work specifically on collecting and distributing products. To start with, it was just Saffron and her box, which she put in Potterow and collected products to take to shelters and foodbanks across the city. Then, she started reaching out to societies and asking to attend their events to talk about period poverty, and was soon joined by Rosie and I. Together we formed a little team, running collection drives and the first event of our own: a Big Bloody Brunch, where people could trade in period products for a bloody mary and sit and chat to us about all things periods and period poverty.

In 2019 we provided a case study for the First Minister’s National Advisory Council of Women and Girls on Period Poverty for their Health spotlight, talking about the importance of reducing the stigma and increasing availability of products in Scotland. Something that was interesting for us to learn from Edinburgh Women’s Shelter was that, in situations of domestic abuse, period products are often one of the first things women are denied access to, as their abusers’ means of asserting power. We were driven by scenarios like this, in which it was obvious that access to period products was invaluable to preventing barriers to women and other menstruating people’s independence and autonomy. We worked alongside other organisations to share petitions, mobilise support and raise awareness of Monica Lennon’s bill when it was first proposed, speaking at any event that would have us, and using social media to engage with other organisations and promote their work.

During lockdown a lot of our activism moved online, which we anticipated to be a challenge but was actually a success. We held a #MyFirstPeriod campaign on our Instagram where we encouraged people to share stories of their first period and this got us lots of online traction – it was both devastating and wonderful to hear the stories of young people struggling with their first period and the way in which their attitudes towards them had grown and changed! I also began collecting directly from my Edinburgh flat, since we no longer had campus or events or other venues to collect from. Social media was key for this – we found that as people were cleaning out their homes with the extra time they had on their hands, they were keen to get rid of surplus period products, and word got out fast! My flat essentially became a drop-off centre, and we were able to continue providing for homeless shelters and refuge’s even during lockdown.

In 2021 the wonderful Free Period Provision Bill was passed – this was HUGE! It really served to show how far we’ve come in just a few years. Just in 2016, the Scottish Government had claimed that menstruation is ‘not a health issue’. For anyone who might not know, the bill meant that products were officially free to anyone who needed them in Scotland, and that local authorities were under legal obligation to provide products to everyone in need, making them available in schools, community centres, libraries and the majority of public buildings. It came just after the 2020 Period Products in Schools Regulations Act which made products mandatory in school buildings. The 2021 Act also saw the launch of an app in collaboration with the social enterprise HeyGirls called Pick up my Period, where you can search for venues that have accessible period products when you’re out and about. We’re still seeing the effects of this bill be rolled out and how different councils will distribute products based on the needs of their residents, for example in more remote areas such as the Orkney Islands, there is a delivery service being piloted for residents in remote communities. HeyGirls are providing home drop offs to people living in the Highlands, as well. It is equally as important that distribution takes into consideration non-geographical aspects of period provision, including disability, for people also unable to leave their homes.

However, what we do know for sure is that there is still a need. You may be surprised to know that the Meadows public toilets do not have period products available in them. Further to this, Simon Community made us aware that as the need for period pads lessens slightly, the need for underwear in communities experiencing homelessness and poverty grows, because menstruation is not just a question of pads and tampons, but how people’s day to day lives are affected and the other provisions they need during their periods, including underwear, pain management, hygiene products, etc. Since the bill, therefore, we’ve started branching out and exploring other ways to meet these needs. This has included our various ‘Knicker Drives’, a format that has helped us to collect underwear and also tackle stigma; we have done knicker-shaped cookie decorating, a bloody mary brunch at the local bar Paradise Palms, collected at drag shows, and organised several individual drives, including one for Ukraine, where we collected at Teviot over the course of a week and dropped these to an initiative delivering aid and donations to displaced people at the border. We’ve also worked hard to collaborate with other organisations on campus to explore the intersections between different issues involving women and reproductive rights – in November 2021, we collaborated with The Noisy Movement, who are a student-led group which lead campaigns to organise the voices of vulnerable groups and founded the This Is Not Consent campaign, on a podcast series for the 16 days of activism. The podcast series involved 16 episodes where we chatted to different groups doing work to tackle gender-based violence on and off campus; we believe that period poverty and barriers to accessing reproductive health is a form of gender based violence, and it was invaluable to have the opportunity to organise a collaboration like this to explore this relationship even further and work together with other groups who had the same aims.

Our biggest event so far was the Menstruation Exhibition we hosted in May last year in collaboration with Gallery Society, based in ECA. The exhibition was so special to me because it felt like a real celebration of menstruating bodies and a great way to get people engaged with issues surrounding menstruation. It was also so interesting and exciting to see how different artists interpreted the theme of menstruation and with what mediums they explore it – we had tapestries, sculptures, poetry, paintings, from artists at professional level and people who were trying art for the first time. It was a huge success – we hosted in Teviot Study and had two sold out slots of 65 people, raising an extraordinary amount of money which we’ve been able to use to bulk buy underwear for Simon Community and put towards future projects. We also facilitated a wider discussion around reproductive rights at the exhibition by having a guest speaker from Back off Scotland, the organisation previously known as Back off Chalmers which has been working to implement buffer zones around abortion clinics. We also had a spokesperson from Lilipads, which is an Edinburgh-based group that teaches menstruation education in schools and has recently started designing their own environmentally friendly pads, and a speaker from Simon Community. The feedback we got from the event was amazing – we had several older people come in and note how fantastic it was we were doing something like this when they hadn’t even been able to talk about periods growing up. The biggest thing we learnt from the exhibition was that people were really keen to learn and to engage and to celebrate bodies rather than hide from them. We’re hoping to do another exhibition this year!

When we were first set up we faced challenges collecting products because it was obvious that period products were still seen as a taboo. Organisations that we reached out to frequently told us that they ‘didn’t do that sort of thing’. At one of our collections for an event at a hotel, the manager moved Saffron and her box downstairs away from the reception claiming, ‘we can’t have a makeshift pink box in the doorway that says the word Sanitary products on it in a hotel of this calibre’. However, attitudes in Scotland are changing and have changed a lot since we first started out. People are generally a lot more on board with discussing issues surrounding menstruation which admittedly has a lot to do with how ‘trendy’ the topic has become in recent years – with new reforms being brought into government etc and universities and schools, it has become a thing that looks good for organisations to be actively in support of ending period poverty – which, even though it comes with the risk of performativity, is good! We’ve also grown a lot as an organisation.

Language – We stopped using ‘sanitary products’ because we believe periods are not dirty. We stopped using ‘Menstrual Hygeine Day’ and started using ‘Menstrual Health Day’ because HEALTH should be the priority, periods are not dirty and associations with hygiene are harmful.

Gender diversity – We stopped using women when talking about menstruating people – not every woman menstruates, and not everyone who menstruates is a woman. Periods and Period Poverty affect a diverse group of gender identities and policies around them should accommodate and be inclusive of, by default, the needs of these various gender identities.

We’ve learnt that some schemes, while progressive on the surface, are still deeply rooted in stigma. Tesco has a new provision called the ‘White Envelope scheme’ where shoppers in Tesco can go to a cashier and ask for a white envelope and be given free period products, following a 2021 similar scheme where they had to ask for ‘a package for Sandy’. But this raises the question of 1) why people have to ASK for the products in busy environments such as supermarkets – we see this in schools too, where students have to go to a front desk (I know I did in school) and request, in a busy corridor, period products. There is much more sense in just leaving products to be taken in whatever quantities are needed without having to be supervised by staff – THIS would make them accessible. 2) euphemistic language like ‘white envelope’ just adds to the idea that periods are secret, dirty, disturbing things that people should keep quiet about, and leaves a lot more room for embarrassment when Tesco staff don’t understand what the customer is requesting. We shouldn’t have to keep hiding periods behind this language or dumb down our needs.

Further afield, the issue is still dire: England is years behind – it is still not mandatory for schools to take up free government period products, despite period poverty getting worse with the cost-of-living crisis. A third of young people still do not have access to products in schools – meaning that 30% of schools are not taking up the government scheme, which is a huge issue. A recent study by WaterAID showed that 1 in 5 people were still using makeshift materials, such as loo roll, to comepnsate for their lack of period product, and 2 in 5 school-aged pupils were worried about adding to the financial burden of their parent or caregiver by asking for period products. Further to this, there is evidently still a problem with stigma around periods and menstrual health more generally – this is something we want to engage more with in the future by hosting regular menstrual health sharing circles. It takes an average of 7.5 years to diagnose endometriosis, a severely painful and debilitating condition. We want to keep using our little organisation to push for more recognition of menstruation related issues and for reproductive justice on a widescale.

You can follow us on Social media to keep up to date with our work: @periodpovertyuofe (Instagram) and Period Poverty University of Edinburgh (facebook)

And email us to get involved or for any other enquiries:

You can listen to our podcast series here!

Author Bio

Lauren Galligan is a final year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh who has been Undergraduate Manager of Period Poverty Edinburgh since first year. She is also Editor in Chief of the student led publication The Broad Online. She is originally from Merseyside.