When refugees arrive in the UK to seek asylum, they are initially allocated around £37 per week to live on. Thirty seven quid doesn’t stretch very far, meaning that drop-in centres often have to fill the gap by providing day-to-day essentials. When Gabby Edlin started volunteering in a North London drop-in centre and found out that sanitary towels were only supplied in ‘emergencies’, she decided to do something about it.
She set up Bloody Good Period to collect and distribute sanitary towels for asylum seekers, refugees and anyone who can’t afford them. We were extremely lucky to grab some time with Gabby to discuss tampon tax, being ignored by the major sanitary towel brands and what can be done to end period poverty.
ASOOO: For those who don’t know, could you please give us a brief bit of background about Bloody Good Period and your journey so far?
Gabby Edlin: I come from a small Jewish community in Manchester where, like many secular or religious Jewish communities, as kids we went to summer camps. The camps are very much focused on social change and creative programming, it’s about peer leadership and never doing the same thing twice. And so, whenever I meet someone who had anything to do with those youth movements as a teenager, growing up, I say “Bloody Good Period is basically a youth movement” and they get it!
It’s very creative, very left-field and that’s where it all started. I went to Uni and studied English and Art and then, eventually, came across a Masters in Applied Imagination at Central St Martins – when I discovered it was all built around asking questions, I knew it was for me. That was a mind blowing couple of years. After I left, I started nannying to earn money, all the while thinking about how I wanted to do something new, that I wanted to do something good, but I couldn’t find where I fitted. Then the Dad of the family I was nannying for asked if I wanted to come along to volunteer at an asylum seeker drop-in centre where he was working. I saw the list of things that they were collecting but sanitary towels weren’t on there. I asked them why not, and they said, “We only offer them in case of emergency.” And that just… aaaaaarrrgghhh! So I put a thing on Facebook asking for people to send me some pads, and it grew from there.
"There was a desperation among people to get involved.
I really didn’t expect that."
That’s how it got started and just recently I’ve been able to work on Bloody Good Period as a part time paid job. We have one hundred volunteers, who are all awesome, and it couldn’t run without them. We have a storage locker, and every few months we have to get a bigger one because donations keep on growing. People donate though our Amazon wish list or people have collections at work. We supply to fifteen drop-in centres across London and we’re really only scratching the surface.
ASOOO: When we ran a period-led campaign a few years’ ago, we were told by one health journalist that 'people just don't want to read about periods over their cereal'. How do people react to BGP?
Gabby: People always ask me “how do women react when they get the pads?” but I’m like… erm… how should they react?! They react like anyone would. No one has ever said “thank you so much, you have changed my life with a tampon.” It’s not like that. It’s their right! So the interesting reaction is nothing to do with the recipient, it’s the reaction of the people giving them. But there was a desperation among people to get involved. I really didn’t expect that. I expected to get a few pads and do some fundraising every so often. But we were receiving hundreds of thousands of pads. I just wanted to do something good, and something creative. I didn’t want to use the word ‘taboo’ or ‘stigma’. I’m not embarrassed by this stuff and I don’t see why anyone else should be.
ASOOO: Have you noticed a shift in attitude?
Gabby: I forget when I’m not in my ‘period bubble’, that not everyone wants to talk about periods, but it’s alarming how fast things are changing. People really are talking about this.
There are some great people working to tackle period poverty at the moment. Amika George runs ‘Free Periods’, which is very much a campaign movement, and focuses on schools, but we’re more focused on getting product to the people who need it right now. We’re keen not to step on anyone’s toes, but we’ll help wherever it’s needed, and asylum seekers and refugees are really stuck. They cannot work, their hands are tied, there’s just no path at the moment for people in that situation. Anything we can do to counter the Daily Mail attitude. Anything that might make people think differently from that.
We’ve had some trolls, people who say “Why don’t you give to English girls?” and I’m like, “some of these girls were born here! But their parents might not have the right paperwork…” We don’t put any tags or labels on people, none of our language talks exclusively about women — we try to be as inclusive as possible. Being inclusive doesn’t harm anyone, and sure as hell isn't an erasure of 3rd wave feminism and those we owe so much to equality-wise. We just want to make sure everyone feels welcome and that they can identify with what we’re doing.
ASOOO: And what about Government? Has BGP opened any doors to have conversations around period poverty? This obviously isn't just an issue for asylum-seekers or refugees—teenage girls in this country are having to take time off school when they're on their periods because they can't afford sanitary products.
Gabby: There are a group of amazing female MPs who are incredible, Paula Sherriff, who is the Dewsbury MP for Labour, and Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, all passionate advocates for us, but they’re all Labour. I’ve met no one in the Government who wants to address the problem at all.
There was a small announcement recently in the media, “Government to help tackle period poverty”, by donating 10% of the tampon tax to Brook [the sexual health advisory service for young people]. And that was celebrated as a win. There’s no win here. What’s happened is that the Government have taken the money that they should never have collected anyway, and donated a tiny proportion to a charity, with no specifics about what has been done with that money.
"There was no win. The truth is that by making this donation, the Government have tried to sweep the issue under the carpet, and a lot of people will think the problem has gone away. The Government has done nothing."
ASOOO: It’s a token gesture on behalf of the Government…
Gabby: I don’t even think it’s that. Imagine if you came to the UK from India, and then every Indian person was taxed, and then a portion was paid back to support Indian people suffering from exclusion or victimisation. It’s bizarre. There was no win. The truth is that by making this donation, the Government have tried to sweep the issue under the carpet, and a lot of people will think the problem has gone away. The Government has done nothing. It’s nothing to do with shame. It’s just to do with not giving a shit. They don’t care. Periods are seen as a wildcard. It’s like toilet paper. Imagine bringing your own toilet paper everywhere you went.
A lot of people just cannot see the problems that face asylum seekers and refugees. They say, ‘at big supermarkets, a pack of pads is 80p, and well, can’t everyone afford that?’ Well, no. If you have £37 a week to live on, it’s practically nothing, or if you’re a school girl, you might actually have nothing. And even if you could budget for that, it’s dependent on you living near a big superstore to get those kind of prices, so you’ve got to factor in a bus or a taxi to that price.
You can’t afford to go there every month. And you can’t just buy in bulk and keep them in your room because you might not have a bedroom or even a home. And the quality might be awful. All anyone needs is a bit of empathy to realise that it’s much harder than just budgeting.
"The people who run those companies are missing a trick, when they could be really making a difference. They treat period poverty as a marketing gimmick."
ASOOO: School children are taught so little about periods, and often it’s only the girls who are taught anything at all. To what extent do you think that education (or lack of) is part of the problem?
Gabby: I mean, they don’t tell boys because they think boys don’t need to know. But that’s ridiculous. Better education for everyone is essential. I would love to do more in that area, if we weren’t so busy giving out pads! It’s insane that men don’t know more about menstruation. We wonder why we, as women, find this all so embarrassing and shove tampons up our sleeves when we get up to go to the toilet!
ASOOO: 'Always' have made a big deal out of their '#endperiodpoverty campaign, but have been criticised for not doing enough to actually tackle the problem. Do you think there is space for big brands to come together and make a meaningful impact?
Well, they are the bad guys in all of this, they really, really are. It’s not fair to tar all the companies with the same brush, but the big companies are profiting from period poverty. They have never reached out to us. I think that says so much. The people who run those companies are missing a trick, when they could be really making a difference. They treat period poverty as a marketing gimmick. They’ve got celebrities saying: “Oh I remember when I first had a period, and I had a really bad time because I couldn’t find a pad …blah blah blah” If you really care, do something tangible about it!
ASOOO: Do you have any direct contact with them?
Gabby: I call them out on social media. Like with the blue blood/red blood advert for Bodyform. It was those companies that created the blue blood advertising in the first place. People before me were campaigning against this taboo, but now we’re supposed to be “Hey, you’re so radical.” We KNOW we bleed red. Sometimes it’s brown! You created this blue substitute because you were scared. You created this shame. I don’t know if they’re afraid to work with us or what, but they can’t pretend to care.
ASOOO: What about reusables?
Gabby: We do get people saying, ‘why aren’t you encouraging the use of more reusables like menstrual cups?’. Ethical activists are constantly contacting us and saying “Stop using disposables!” but for a lot of the people we support, they either don’t want to use a menstrual cup, or they can’t use a menstrual cup. It’s not an option, because they don’t have the facilities, or a lockable door.
The Womens Environmental Network are campaigning to the big companies to change the way they manufacture disposables and to be more open about it. They’re being really smart in how they’re approaching it. The environmental issues aren’t going away. It’s only a matter of time before Bodyform come out with a ‘natural, organic’ tampon and they’ll sell it with the line ‘we care about you and your vagina.’ It’s inevitable. But they’re selling the tampons with all the chemicals in!
ASOOO: What are the other big hurdles for Bloody Good Period?
The hurdles for Bloody Good Period are scale. We want to scale up but we need it to be manageable. Our ethos is that we won’t supply a drop-in until we know we can be reliable and supply every month. When smaller operations start out, it’s more ad-hoc, but the people we supply need to know they can rely on the supply of products.
"When your period comes, you need a pad or a tampon, otherwise you’d have to put toilet paper in your knickers or something. It can happen to anybody."
ASOOO: And what about goals?
Gabby: Well, of course, we want to see asylum seekers and refugees treated better, but it’s a huge goal to aim for. Our ultimate goal is to change the public understanding of menstrual products so that people see them as a necessity, like toilet paper or drinking water, but at the moment, it’s just as much about changing attitudes on a very simple level.
People can’t always anticipate when they’ll come on their period. I was approached by a woman the other day who was 60 and asked me for a pad. She said that her periods catch her by surprise every single time. And that’s a perfect example of the issue. When your period comes, you need a pad or a tampon, otherwise you’d have to put toilet paper in your knickers or something. It can happen to anybody.
Bloody Funny, a comedy fundraiser for Bloody Good Period is on Tuesday 2nd October 2018 at Conway Hall — get tickets here:
We urge you to donate to Bloody Good Period and help in the fight against period poverty here: