How Lewisham volunteers are changing the conversation about period poverty

Red box with period products. Pic: The Red Box Project

Red box with period products. Pic: The Red Box Project

Becky Lopez del Rincon Troussel spent several years working in an all-girls’ school, but the first time she heard about period poverty was after she took a break from teaching.

A friend in York who set up one of the first chapters of the Red Box Project, a charity that delivers period products to schools around the country, enlisted her help, thinking it would be the perfect fit for Becky while she took time off after having children.

Since discovering the Red Box Project, Becky founded the first London chapter in south east London. The chapter has 25 coordinators and serves 23 primary, secondary and Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) schools in the borough of Lewisham- just one of the many boroughs covered. Of the 23 schools in Lewisham, there isn’t one of them without a need for the box. Most schools have their boxes topped up every term.

Becky told Eastlondonlines: “You can see by the rate that they go through the boxes that the need is there.”

Becky Lopez del Rincon Troussel. Pic: Becky Lopez del Rincon Troussel

Becky Lopez del Rincon Troussel. Pic: Becky Lopez del Rincon Troussel

Period poverty is a worldwide issue that affects women and schoolgirls who are unable to afford sanitary protection, resulting in young girls missing school. In the last year, important strides have been taken in the fight to end period poverty. The Scottish government began providing free sanitary products to all students, making it the first in the world to do so, while the Welsh government allocated £1 million to provide free sanitary products.

In comparison, the central UK government has yet to take action. This inaction means that local authorities and charities like the Red Box Project are relied upon to shed light on the issue. But with local authorities facing slashed budgets from austerity measures, the pressure falls more and more on the third sector. In January, the Red Box Project teamed up with the FreePeriods in a campaign advocating for government action to ensure every schoolgirl has access to menstrual products in England.

“We hear a lot of people saying, oh this is just the latest issue. Someone even once called it trendy to me,” Becky said. Nothing could be further from the truth: “What we hear time and time again from people who donate to us is: this was me when I was a kid. I was the kid stuffing tissues in my pants or I was using socks or rags instead of products because I didn’t have access to them.”

Period poverty isn’t a new issue. Most schools have always provided period products. However, with child poverty increasing, the need for action on a government-level increases as well. A 2017 report from the children’s charity Plan International UK showed that one in 10 girls aged 14 to 21 in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary wear.

The boxes have been an important tool in broaching a conversation about periods and accessibility for students. Not only do girls facing period poverty benefit from the free products but so do all girls in the classroom. The “red box” is available to any girl who needs it and encourages girls to talk about their periods in a friendly, accessible way.

One Lewisham teacher said: “We’re having conversations we’ve never had before.”

Some teachers mentioned to Becky that the red box helps girls in class who have learning difficulties and struggle to remember bags and books let alone period products.

“That kid shouldn’t have to miss school for that. She shouldn’t have to go home at lunchtime because she hasn’t remembered her menstrual pads,” she said.

Eliminating the stigma surrounding periods is one of the first steps in opening up the discussion about period poverty. Dr Gill Main, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds School of Education, is leading research into understanding the scope of period poverty while working with Leeds City Council on practical ways to provide products without increasing stigma. Leeds is one of the few cities in the UK that has made a pledge to address period poverty.

Main said: “It is very stigmatising for anyone living in poverty to accept the help they’re entitled to because of societal narratives and judgments. That’s just compounded when you’re talking about period poverty because of course there’s a stigma around that too.”

With high anecdotal evidence indicating that period poverty is an issue, Main wasn’t surprised by the severity of the problem.

She said: “We know child poverty is increasing. We should be horrified that this is happening, there’s simply no excuse for the level of deprivation that children and families are facing.”

Even though no central government action has happened yet, Becky remains hopeful and inspired by the support and enthusiasm from south east London.

“I think more and more when you talk to people about it, they’ve heard of us,” she said. “People do know period poverty is an issue now. Hopefully, we can get the government to acknowledge it too.”

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