It’s well known that school attendance drops right off on "Christmas Jumper Day". For those who’ve managed to avoid it (and well done to you, you lucky, lucky thing) Christmas Jumper Day is this new daft tradition (similar to the twice-yearly faux-Brexit day) when everyone is encouraged to jingle into school, college or work enrobed in an itchy-looking fire hazard. Lots of kids just don’t turn up to school that day. I don’t blame them. It’s the equivalent of saying to the kids: “Put your hand up if you’re poor.”
I’ve been thinking about women’s bodies recently. Which isn’t the start of a Barry White song. No, the kind of thoughts I’ve been marching through have to do with gender equality and what that means in a physical sense. Especially in relation to our students.
Tackling period poverty
Getting your period, for some women, is the biological equivalent of a week of Christmas Jumper Days every single month. While there are all sorts of physical variations in how a woman experiences menstruation, the admin of managing it is in general similar – tampons or pads, though there are, of course, moon cups and washable pants and all sorts of other innovative alternatives.
If you can’t afford to adequately manage the monthly mop up, and the old "fashioning a mile of loo-roll into a period nappy" won’t suffice, periods can be another exercise in “Put your hand up if you’re poor”. It’s not right, is it?
I haven't noticed free sanitary accoutrements available in colleges I’ve visited and worked at in recent years, but that might be because I don’t get periods myself. I haven’t had ‘em for yonks, due to having a Mirena coil installed up my Mary (What? I was born without a "too much information!" cut-off-valve. Anyway, it’s only biology, so chill the heck out, maaaan). This magic contraption isn’t right for every woman but it works a treat for me. The only downside is, at my age and without Aunt Flo coming to visit, I’ve no idea if I’m menopausing or not – I plunge into threat-level hot flush every time I’m anything other than frostbitten. So it might be that the offer of tampons and pads is there and that I just haven’t clocked them.
With a bee in my bonnet, I asked the question on Twitter. It was a wonderfully reassuring response. Here, read it for yourself:
It seems that because it didn’t relate directly to me, I just hadn’t noticed. Now that I’m embarrassed about! It turns out that almost everywhere is on it regarding women being "on". All of Scotland and Wales are already government-funded to provide menstrual products in all schools and colleges. And from early 2020, a government-funded scheme in England will follow suit.
In addition to numerous other brilliant initiatives and campaigns, The Red Box Project, a community-based non-profit, has been instrumental in supporting the move away from period poverty. Lots of people in colleges are already working with them, and Red Box will be going full throttle with a campaign for schools and colleges to take up the government-funded free period products very soon. Though it would seem that lots of colleges have been sorted for ages.
Colleagues from around the country have told me about the "dignity bags" they make up in their departments, special cupboards where students help themselves, and fully stocked baskets in the ladies’ loos where staff donate products.
All of this is wonderful. I’m popping away my poster paints, placard-making kit and marching boots as we speak. Just one thought. And it’s a mini-moan as it seems like this issue can already be filed under "WON".
For those who have free stuff casually stashed in loos: amazing. You are the answer. No one has to even have a conversation about it.
For those who have free stuff but students have to ask for it: first of all… Hurrah for free stuff, you are brilliant! Nearly there. But just have a think what an ordeal that might be for a student to have to ask. That makes an assumption. We don’t know their home lives. We don’t know if periods are equated with shame. We don’t know if they would perceive having to ask for supplies as yet another version of "put your hand up if you’re poor", and that might be beyond their coping capacity.
For those who don’t yet have free stuff in the college: make it happen. You don’t have to be a manager or a leader to make it happen. And it doesn’t have to be done in a way that makes people feel bad for not having done it already. Like me, they might have just forgotten to notice. But get it done. Ask one of the many contributors to the Twitter thread for advice. Get in touch with The Red Box Project. We’re nearly there.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons