Lessons from the UK’s First Period Conference

Last week, Justine Greening MP, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, stated that period poverty was the responsibility of schools and parents. As a period poverty activist I was infuriated by this statement and the lack of knowledge which underpinned it.

So, when I attended the UK’s first period conference two days later, I thought it would be a great idea to share my learning with Justine Greening. Below are a list of the key takeaways from the conference so everyone, including the UK Minister for Women and Equalities, can understand how we can improve the lives of those who menstruate:

1. Period poverty is a reality

The conference brought together organisations from all over the UK to share their experiences of period poverty and period taboos, and to develop a manifesto to tackle these issues.

I met with organisations from a number of sectors, and almost every part of the UK. Their experiences of working to alleviate period poverty are enough evidence that it exists.

During the conference, Hannah from Period Potential shared her experience of period poverty. She told her heartbreaking story of growing up without lack of access to products. She said that sometimes she “would save money for sanitary products instead of eating”.

Hannah’s story is not unique. According to Precious Stars 57% of people have used toilet roll or something else to absorb their blood whilst on their period. And, Plan UK’s research showed that 16% of girls’ families in their survey struggled to afford sanitary items.

2. Period poverty is about more than unaffordable products

If we are going to tackle period poverty we need to tackle the bigger picture. Period poverty isn’t just about being unable to afford products, it’s also a deep rooted societal issue. It’s the ingrained taboos and stigma which stop people from asking for help.

We need to create an honest and open culture around menstruation, so that people feel comfortable to speak out about their experiences. In doing so we need to be explicit in our conversations about periods and not be ashamed by our natural bodily process.

Photo by Terri Harris

3. We need to reform the UK education system

We need to completely reform the way we teach sexual education in UK schools because the current curriculum reinforces menstrual taboos and stigma.

Boys and girls are separated from the moment they begin sex education. This needs to change. Menstruation is a bodily process that both sexes need to understand in order to eradicate the idea that periods are unclean.

Period product brands play too large a role in the education system. Pupils are being advertised to rather than educated. These are the brands that made us believe periods are blue, and that we’re unclean during menstruation. We need an open dialogue which includes reusable products, and doesn’t exclude pupils by focusing on expensive name-brand products.

4. We need to understand menstruation better

Sally King, from Menstrual Matters, shared her experience in which her PMS vomiting was misdiagnosed as anxiety because there wasn’t enough research on how menstruation affects the body. 

There’s a huge data gap. Due to many social, economic and political factors there is an inadequate diagnosis process to differentiate between health issues and those heightened or, caused by the menstrual cycle. There needs to be more medical and scientific research into how menstruation affects our bodies.

There has also been no national or regional survey about period poverty. And, that means we have no idea what the extent of the issue is, or who is tackling it. We need to work together to commission research, so we have hard evidence to lobby the government with.

5. We need to be more inclusive

There is a need to understand menstruation beyond the lens of a white, able-bodied cis-female. Menstruation intersects culture, sexuality, disabilities and religion. Therefore we must work to acknowledge the differences in people’s experiences of menstruation.

As, Mandu Reid from the Cup Effect noted, “making assumptions is one of the most dangerous things we can do”. It is important that we ask individuals how they need to be supported, and work with them to change the lives of their communities.

Saturday’s event focused on breaking the barriers of menstruation, and it did just that. Whilst Justine Greening may be able to overlook the issues of period poverty and period education, the menstrual queens I met at the conference will not. This marks the beginning of a national effort to change the way we view periods, reduce shame and tackle period poverty once and for all.

POWER TO THE PERIODS!

Gender Based Violence: What you need to know

What is Gender Based Violence?

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms used interchangeably. However, it is important to recognise that men can experience abuse from women, and abuse within same sex relationships happens at similar rates to heterosexual relationships.

That said, it has been widely acknowledged that the majority of people affected by gender-based violence are women and girls. This is due to unequal distribution of power in society between women and men. Women have fewer options and less resources to avoid abusive situations and seek justice. They also face challenges to their sexual and reproductive health, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, sexual assault, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, female genital mutilation (FGM), and higher risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

Youth for Change works in the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh. We focus on three areas under gender based violence; child/early forced marriage, FGM and sexual consent.

What about Child/Early Forced Marriage and FGM?

Both child/early forced marriage (CEFM) and FGM are forms of gender based violence. They are driven by gender inequality and social expectations of what it means to be a girl. They are means of controlling girls’ sexuality often linked to cultural, religious or traditional social norms.

Some communities believe forced marriage and FGM is a way of providing a safer future for their daughters. In reality they are both violations of girls’ rights which have devastating consequences. Both forced marriage and FGM make girls more likely to drop out of school, face violence, health problems, and experience complications during pregnancy. Neither are religious practices, they are cultural traditions.

Approximately 700 million women alive today were married as children while 200 million women were cut. Both issues are widespread around the world, including  Europe, Africa, Asia and the US.

And what about Sexual Consent?

Educating young people on sexual consent prevents gender based violence. Consent is about communication. And it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future. When consent is not given, this leads to sexual assault or rape.

What links these forms of GBV together?

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to their own body. This basic principle applies to all forms of gender based violence. Including FGM and forced marriage.

What are we doing about it?

As Youth for Change we have been campaigning across the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh, aiming to end FGM and forced marriage, and to make sure young people know their sexual rights. We look at these issues on a country-by-country basis. As youth activists we focus on the issues in the countries where we live. For example, the Bangladesh youth team focus on child marriage, as it is the most prevalent issue there.

Young people have a crucial role to play in ending gender based violence. We have been raising awareness about the impacts within communities and empowering young people to speak out against it. Working with our governments in each country, we are pushing for stronger policies and systems to prevent gender based violence happening in the first place.

In the UK, where I am an activist, we have a campaign called #TrainToProtect, which calls for compulsory FGM and forced marriage training for teachers across the UK. The new Sexual Relationships Education (SRE) Bill in the UK will see SRE taught to students in all schools. But in order to deliver quality SRE, including on FGM and forced marriage, and to respond to any disclosures from students – teachers must have the necessary training.

Want to help?

For those based in the United Kingdom: teachers and students can take part in our 2 min survey to have your say on SRE education!

For more information or support on any of these issues: 

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org

For detailed guidance on consent visit Consent is Everything

Visit the NHS for detailed information on FGM

Childline information on Forced Marriage

GOV UK guidance on Forced Marriage

Gemma Munday is a member of the Youth for Change youth team, advocating against gender based violence. She also works in communications for youth-led development agency Restless Development. Here she supports young people around to world to capture and share their stories of change. Previously she has worked in UNICEF UK’s media team and was selected as a digital ambassador for UN Women. With a history of working with young people, Gemma has taught in an additional needs school and worked as a mentor for underprivileged youth.

From Child Worker to Girl with Big Dreams

Written by Anna Safronova, Fellow at SOS Children’s Villages  

In 2001, Diane* was born to a family of poor farmers in a small town in Burundi—a landlocked nation in East Africa where 81% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. The money her parents earned wasn’t enough to provide Diane the stable life she desperately needed as a child. Sadly, when Diane was six, her parents were unable to cover the costs of medical care and ultimately lost their lives to malaria. Without a family, Diane found herself completely alone. Instead of starting primary school, she was forced to work as a domestic worker in order to survive.

I was six years old at the time. I felt alone, confused, rejected, with nowhere to go,” Diane said. “I looked for work as a domestic helper. I moved from family to family looking for a place that could be the home I had lost. I really suffered.

Diane’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly not unique. Her plight of having to work in order to survive is shared by hundreds of thousands of orphaned children in Burundi—a country which is ranked one of the 10 worst countries in the world for child labor. In fact, nearly one in four children in Burundi is a child worker.

Many of these children are forced into domestic servitude either to support their families or even just to support themselves. While at work, they are more likely to become victims of verbal or physical abuse.  Orphaned girls in Burundi like Diane are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor like sex trafficking, exploitation or domestic work in private households. The toll this can have on these girls’ emotional and mental health is significant.

Child labor also has an especially detrimental effect on girls’ education. Girls often leave school disproportionally earlier than their male peers to undertake domestic work.  Sadly, by forgoing school for work, their chances of becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of society are significantly diminished.

One way to break this cycle is to make sure that girls are given a chance to grow up in stable families. Families that allow them to be children and do what children are supposed to do: learn, play and feel loved. For girls who live with vulnerable families, it’s critical that we help them become stable and strong through family support programs in order to prevent family breakdown and child abandonment. For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, we need to work tirelessly to make sure they are able to grow up in a stable, loving family environment — like the one Diane is growing up in today.

In 2009, when Diane was eight years old, she was welcomed to live with a family headed by an SOS Mother—a trained caregiver—at the SOS Children’s Village in Cibitoke, Burundi. The village is one of 570 SOS Children’s Villages working around the world to provide loving and stable families for children in need. Growing up in such an environment provides girls like Diane with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: an education, medical care and a stable family.

My mind is settled now and I am performing well in school,” said Diane, when asked about her life in the SOS Village. “My SOS Mother helped me to feel important and to regain my self-confidence. I now know that the power to become what I want to be in life lies within me. Now that I have a chance to go to school – good school – I know my future depends on the effort I put into my schoolwork.

Diane’s transformation from a child worker to a child full of dreams is a testament to how a stable family can change the course of a girl’s life. Today, Diane, 13, is free of everyday worries of survival and receives the love and support she needs to dream big and pursue her dreams.

As global citizens, we should all work together to empower girls worldwide by providing them with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: a stable home, education and quality health care.

This summer you can change the course of a girl’s life by supporting SOS Children’s Villages’ Invest in a Girl campaign. Sponsor a girl and receive an ALEX AND ANI Sand Castle Charm Bangle, designed for SOS Children’s Villages. 

*Name changed for privacy reasons

What’s Holding Women Back in Engineering?

Although the topic of gender equality in engineering (and in STEM overall) is still common, and there is undoubtedly greater awareness of it, the problem is still far from being solved. Recently, there was an infographic published on the difficulties women face in scientific faculties, with a particular focus on engineering. There are several components that contribute to the gender gap in the field.

One such factor is the “stereotype threat”, as defined by Steele & Aronson in 1995. This occurs when one is afraid of confirming negative stereotypes about a particular social group (in this case that “girls are not meant to work in science”). This can have an impact on a student’s performance when taking an important test, for example.

Various American studies have shown how the environment plays a heavy role on pupils’ test results, preventing them from reaching their full potential when skin color or gender is emphasized.  This negative feedback loop is a vicious circle: when girls score lower on STEM tests, it can further discourage them, reinforcing the idea that the stereotype is true.

This might have its effect on their future as well. In the United States, for example, only 20% of engineering students are women. And this female under-representation is a global phenomenon. This suggests that by the time they reach their college applications, many women have lost interest in becoming an engineer, or think that the major is too difficult.

Confidence is a crucial factor for women when making decisions. A Hewlett Packard report quoted in several articles, including the Harvard Business Review, showed that while men apply for jobs when meeting 60% of the requirements, women have to meet 100% to feel confident enough to apply. If we assume the same applies for college applications, we can see how the stereotype threat can play a big role.

There have been initiatives to change the current situation. For those girls interested in learning more on the subject, there are countless articles and publications introducing female role models in STEM, one being “STEM Gems”, a book listing 44 women shining in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another initiative worthy of mention is “Engineering is Elementary”, an organization that developed an engineering curriculum suitable for grades 1-5 with the hope of making kids familiar and more interested in engineering at a young age.

Nonetheless, the road ahead is long, and awareness of the issue is only the beginning. A problem this embedded in culture takes time to resolve as we need to change the most stubborn thing of all – our culture’s mindset. The mindset of the employers, young women and society in general. We can all contribute on a daily basis: let’s talk openly about the situation and encourage women and men to break the norm and lose the stereotypes still present.