Why we won’t be attending the #FreePeriods demo

There’s an important demo happening tonight on the topic of period poverty, and Period Potential campaigners have been asked time and time again if we’re going. The answer is no.

But it’s about period poverty? Yes. It’s about menstrual products in schools? Yes. It’s about mobilising attention to change the law? Yes. So why aren’t we going? Because it simply isn’t good enough.

It’s not good enough that the #FreePeriods protest not only ignores but actively excludes the voices of those who have actually experienced Period Poverty. Both Hannah Lawless and Rachel Krengel from Period Potential have spoken publicly (on BBC Breakfast, in the Guardian, the Huffington Post, etc) about their very personal experience of period poverty. However, not only were they not approached to speak but when they offered, it was ignored. Instead, the #FreePeriods campaign has preferred to bring in celebrities. It’s not good enough that #FreePeriods claims to be a voice for those experiencing period poverty, but doesn’t provide the space for these stories to be shared.

It’s not good enough that the #FreePeriods protest claims to fight for every child who has missed a day of school because of their period, but actually fights only for changes that will help a small proportion of students who are considered to be “poor enough”. You can’t talk about consigning period poverty to history while continuing to only focus on free school meals (FSM). Given child poverty rates, there are more than 600,000 students at risk of missing 1 week of school every month due to lack of menstrual products. Given the stigma, lack of education and additional cost burden, the actual numbers are likely higher. #FreePeriods wants to help less than a third of these that they consider “poor enough”, whilst increasing the stigma of poverty.

The proportion of children eligible for free school meals is its lowest in 16 years. 1 million children will likely miss out on this support under Universal Credit.

It’s not good enough that #FreePeriods solely focuses on free school meals when this provision is under constant threat by our government.

It’s not good enough that #FreePeriods continues to focus on free school meals when helping every pupil would cost less than £11 per pupil per year, ensuring everyone is able to reach their full potential.

It’s not good enough that #FreePeriods has ignored the work of the many grassroots activists who have been working on this issue for years.

Amika George, one of the leads in the #FreePeriods campaign, has said that no one was doing anything to address period poverty before she started her petition in April 2017. The Period Potential petition, which has over 112,000 signatures, started in March. In February, Freedom4Girls were asked to help a school in Leeds because of their track record in addressing period poverty. No More Taboo started in 2014, while the fantastic Bloody Good Period has been going for more than a year. The Red Box Project has been sharing their toolkit to help local communities support their local schools with menstrual products for longer still. It is not good enough, nor is it feminist, to simply ignore and then step over these incredible people doing amazing work.

It’s not good enough that #FreePeriods is not willing to address the intersecting stigma between periods and poverty.  Their end goal of having menstrual products in schools only available to those on FSM does not address poverty stigma at all. By having menstrual products available for all, no-one is treated differently for being from a lower income household. Just like toilet paper and hand wash, products can be available in toilets – not locked up in a cupboard somewhere, where you have to humiliatingly ask someone for access.

The argument has been made that this would be “a starting point” for period poverty legislation. However, if #FreePeriods achieve the legislation changes they demand, this will likely shut down any hope of making more useful changes in the near future. Because that’s the way legislation works – once it’s in place, the government (no matter what party is in charge) don’t want to change it. Changing legislation is expensive and time consuming.  If this law change goes ahead, so that only girls on FSM receive products, the conversations that are so desperately needed on education, stigma and health will be inhibited for 5, 10 – even 15 years. That delay will equate to millions of school days missed due to periods and lack of access to menstrual products. Think of all that potential down the toilet because in 2017, we were only willing to help those that were considered “poor enough”, instead of everyone that needed help. The government won’t want to hear about the needs of the working poor, the children who don’t or can’t ask anyone for help, the asylum seekers and refugees, they won’t care about the periods of those living on the streets or in shelters or prisons. Because in their eyes, they will have caved to campaigner demands and ‘solved period poverty’.  

We don’t care whose name is on a demo flyer. We don’t care who’s on telly, or who is credited with bringing about real positive change for children. We just think the time has come to highlight the potential harm that the #FreePeriods campaign could do, no matter how well meaning it is.

It’s not good enough that a demand for an end to period poverty has been watered down in order to be more “palatable”, when every politician we’ve spoken to – in the House of Commons and the House of Lords – has agreed with our concerns around FSM once we’ve explained. If anything, a demand for free menstrual products for all children is easier for the government to bring in than products only for girls on FSM – additional requirements require additional work.

It’s not too late. #FreePeriods has really successfully mobilised public support and gained the press’ attention when it was once flagging – it has the power to bring about real, effective change. The campaign just needs to drop its insistence on having free school meals as part of its demand.

Because all children deserve #FreePeriods.  

 

-Period Potential, a campaign group formed from Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists

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