Q&A with Tina Leslie MBE, founder of Freedom4Girls

period poverty charity Freedom4Girls

To learn more about the issue of period poverty in the United Kingdom, we spoke to Tina Leslie MBE, founder of Freedom4Girls. Tina shares some shocking truths, explaining the awful implications of period poverty. This prevailing social issue should be on the forefront of everyone’s minds, yet no one is talking about it.

Here’s what we learnt:

What do you think is the most prevalent obstacle to abolishing period poverty in the UK? Is it the stigma and taboo surrounding periods resulting in a lack of awareness? Or is it inadequate funding and donations?

A lack of funds, lack of education and a lack of resources to buy period products are the main issues. It’s not just people who are on benefits that are suffering, it’s people who are working. Last year we delivered around 24,000 packets of period products and reusable pads just in the Leeds area.

What do you think about the implications of the cost-of-living crisis on period poverty in the UK? Do you believe period poverty has increased during this time?  

Yes, the demand is nearly as high as it was in COVID. We deal with over 100 organisations and individuals in the Leeds area. Around 90- 85% are from deprived areas. People are having to choose between eating or buying hygiene products. It’s an awful choice.

There are free period products in schools now but because of the stigma and taboo, girls don’t want to go to the office saying, ‘I can’t afford period products, I need some.’ Why can’t the products just be in the toilets? We’re talking about period dignity here, not just period poverty. Why have we got toilet paper and soap in the toilets yet no period products? 

A lot of the stigma and taboo is caused by a lack of education. We’re not including the boys and the information you do get is scant. You don’t get the real information like ‘what is that white stuff in your knickers…your vagina is self-cleaning, what is a heavy period, what is natural, what is normal, what is not normal? 

We [Freedom4Girls] deliver this information in schools and we’ve found that girls just don’t know. Educating the boys may help as that is where a lot of the stigma comes from, but periods need to be normalised. 

It’s 2024 and we’ve got very poor education around periods, mainly because schools don’t have the time and resources. Some schools are brilliant, but a lot of schools, especially those with other issues, get left behind. This also affects the older generation, the people in offices working. We’ve come across managers who don’t know anything from menstruation to menopause. 

So the culture of shame, lack of awareness and prevalence of misinformation about period poverty is hindering the efforts of charity organisations. Are there specific steps that supporters can take to combat this issue? Should we be more active in sharing accurate information on social media, or should we prioritise attending key events?

It all needs to be put to the people in power who can advocate for changing policy. Period poverty isn’t just about people who can’t afford period products but also the awareness. 

We’ve got financially-insecure people working who can’t afford period products because everything else has gone up in price. We need to think about people who are on zero-hour contracts and low-paid workers, who are often women. These workers are often making massive profits for big companies. Why aren’t these companies providing period products for their staff? Workers are responsible for profits but they’re not provided with period products. Workers on minimum wage, like teaching assistants, sometimes can’t afford products. 

Some schools are setting up food banks for their own staff, and then asking us to provide period products. We supply a lot of food banks, domestic violence shelters, mental health agencies, and homeless charities. Yet, right now we are donating products to people who should be able to afford them in this day and age. There’s something wrong with the social security system. The benefit system is broken. 

The cost-of-living has spiraled out of control. How many million children are in poverty at the moment? How many people can’t afford their rent? It’s horrendous. We’ve got the term poverty as an umbrella, but so much else underneath including: food poverty, period poverty, digital poverty. 

We need to tackle the poverty issue.

People in power need to advocate for change otherwise nothing’s going to change. Poverty has gotten so much worse over the last few years.

What specific actions would you like to see from the government?  

I’d like to see more education in schools, specifically for earlier age-groups because girls are starting to menstruate at eight years old now. 

We need policies that force companies to supply period products in bathrooms for workers. 

You often work with schools. What do you think about the impact period poverty has on education? 

It’s massive, girls still miss school every month. I raised a lot of awareness around period poverty in the UK in 2017 yet eight years later it is an ongoing issue. The government might be supplying schools with products but they need to supply education so that girls feel comfortable requesting the products. 

There’s also a massive issue caused by schools locking toilets during lesson times. In some schools girls have to get a doctor’s note to go to the toilet during lesson times. Why do you need a doctor’s note if you are on your period and need a pad? Having access to a toilet is a basic human right, so is safe period protection. This should be up there with shelter, water and food. We cannot function without safe period protection.

Does the issue have a domino effect with implications to education directly damaging the potential future careers of girls?

Absolutely. I deal with this all the time in Kenya. Girls miss months of school because they don’t have period products. Sometimes they use pieces of their mattresses or rags. They are more concerned with whether or not they are leaking instead of their education.

It is the same in the UK, especially when girls can’t access toilets in school when they should be able to. What is the problem with giving pupils the right to access a toilet?

What can we do as a society to ensure the issue doesn’t get to the stage where it is impacting education and career opportunities?

Education. We need to tackle the stigma and taboo. Although there is a lot more information in the media now, it’s still not enough. People in power need to advocate for us, also celebrities could help keep it in the media. Sometimes there’s a spike in media coverage which is great, but then it wanes and the issue is still here. We don’t want to be here as a period poverty charity in 2024 providing period products to those who can’t afford them. It’s horrendous. It’s the same issue preventing families from affording the shops. If you can’t afford food, you can’t afford period products. 

I know that you make reusable pads and host sewing workshops to teach girls how to make them. Are these washable, reusable products a better option? 

Reusable pads are better than single-use products because of the environment. We advocate for people who can come in to make their own in our sewing workshops. But some people can’t even afford to put their washing machines on. 

We also have a partnership with Modibodi so we can offer reusable pants. We educate people around reusables and they can come and try them. These can last up to 4 years so they are an environmentally-friendly and financially-viable alternative to single-use products. However, we understand that some people just can’t afford to buy or wash them. Especially the pants which are expensive at 20 pounds each. It’s great that we can give some away for free, allowing girls to try them out before purchasing. That way it’s not a big deal if they don’t work for someone.

We go to events in community centres and places where women meet, especially in deprived areas, to share education. We also do pride events to help trans men, those who are transitioning but are still having periods. Sometimes they can leave tampons in for a week, so it’s really unhygienic. But giving them a pair of reusable boxer pants is different. I’ve spoken to some trans men who say it’s great having the period boxers.

So, we really need to push for more education?

Periods need to be normalised. The issue is that it has been ingrained into us that periods are secret and we can’t talk about them. It will take a whole generation to make them normal. It’s very difficult but we’re here trying. 

To learn more about the issue of period poverty in the UK, click here

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