Gabby Edlin sits among the piles of books, merchandise and placards reading "2, 4, 6, 8, it costs too much to menstruate" that fill Bloody Good Period’s tiny rented London office, reflecting on what the organisation has achieved in the three years since she first saw the difficulties asylum seekers face accessing period products.
Edlin, fresh from an MA in applied imagination in the creative industries and working as a nanny, had been volunteering at a drop-in centre for destitute asylum seekers in London at the end of 2016. She had, she recalled, asked organisers if she could bring period products to the drop-in to supply to refugee and asylum-seeking women, only to be told – "in a very kind way" – that they were provided only in an "emergency".
"Periods are not an emergency," says Edlin, who is now chief executive of the period poverty charity. "It’s such a strange way to think about them: what point do you expect vulnerable people to reach before they are supplied with pads? Do they have to be crying? Unable to leave the house? Bleeding on the floor?"
The average cost of a packet of 20 sanitary pads or tampons is £2.37 in the UK, which equates to a lifetime charge of £4,800 for anyone who has a period. For asylum-seeking women living in the UK, who receive just £37.75 in state support each week, this is enough to render menstrual products financially inaccessible, forcing them to choose between food or other basic needs and the necessary items required to manage their periods.
Edlin, who grew up in a Jewish family and has often commented on the empathy the Jewish community has with asylum seekers, soon discovered the drop-in centre’s stance on period products was not unusual. The vast majority of UK-based aid organisations and drop-in centres gave almost no consideration to the fact that periods happen every month. "Most places are run by volunteers who hire a room for the day," she says. "It’s a system that is deeply reliant on goodwill and has no capacity to house a month’s worth of period products."
Baffled by the lack of provision, Edlin posted a Facebook status requesting donations of pads and other period products, and attached an Amazon Wish List of supplies. The response was unprecedented. "They were all coming to my flat: piles and piles of them, under the bed, stacked inside the porch," she recalls. "The postman thought it was hilarious."
As interest in her request from family and friends increased, Edlin decided the initiative deserved a more interesting brand than just "Gabby is collecting pads". The name "Bloody Good Period" just came to her, she recalls. "It was the time of Brexit and Trump and everyone was feeling shit to be English, so I wanted something positive and quintessentially British. That term ‘bloody good’: no one else really says it. I also wanted it to be funny: at university I studied feminism and comedy – how to get people to pay attention by making them laugh."
As awareness of Bloody Good Period’s work grew, Edlin faced two major challenges: scaling up the supply of products in a controlled way, and addressing the wider stigmas and cultures of shame that surround the topic of periods. At the time she was holding down two part-time jobs and spending her free time distributing boxes of period products to local drop-in centres. All the while donations continued to flood in. "Finding the time to do it all was impossible," she says. "It was fun, and really interesting work, but I had almost no support."
Tackling the inherent embarrassment many people feel around the subject of periods was built in to the job. The first time Edlin took a supply of pads to a drop-in it was placed discreetly under a table: "No one was taking them because no one knew they were there!" It was only when she took personal responsibility for distributing the products that things began to change: "No one was embarrassed. They just took what they needed."
The lack of societal understanding, consideration and empathy when it comes to periods, she believes, is responsible for the significant lack of menstrual provision to vulnerable women. "It’s taboo: no one wants to talk about it," she says. "You could argue that people didn’t know how to help, but I don’t think people cared because, well ‘oh, periods, gross’." Some organisations have historically offered sanitary kits to asylum seekers, but not on a regular basis. "They just don’t take into account how periods work," Edlin says. "You have to be familiar with what is required by the people you serve. They have to know that products will be coming every month."
Three years down the line, Bloody Good Period now provides period products to 40 drop-in centres around the UK and, she estimates, has taken care of approximately 40,000 periods.
But Edlin stresses the importance of creating a sustainable model. "We never pull back on the supply [of products], because it severs trust, and that is horrible for the women and people who menstruate," she says. "We don’t want to grow without being sustainable, caring and human."
Another of Edlin’s grievances is the lack of dignity with which refugees and asylum seekers are treated, even within the charity sector. "We don’t – ever – do ‘poverty porn’," she says emphatically. "We have never said ‘look at these sad ladies’, we don’t use photographs of faces, we don’t extract stories and we never fundraise using sad stories."
The organisation also roundly rejects the term "beneficiaries" when referring to the individuals it supports. "It’s so patronising!" Edlin says. "To call them beneficiaries is to assume we are changing their lives. Who are we to say whether the people we work with benefit from our services or not?"
This is particularly important because the organisation works primarily with people of colour: "To further be ‘othering’ asylum seekers just for doing something that is their human right is profoundly wrong. All we are doing is giving them period products. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s important, because periods are crucial to everything, but it is just immensely patronising to take that stance."
Rather than seeking to garner sympathy from potential supporters, the charity engages them by deploying the language of outrage and humour. Its events include rip-roaringly successful comedy fundraising evenings featuring some of the UK’s most popular female comedians, "Strawberry Jam" club nights and panel discussions on ethical menstruation. The euphemisms traditionally deployed around menstruation are rejected: merchandise and marketing material is unashamedly bloody.
"We don’t use baby pink," Edlin says. "There’s nothing wrong with baby pink in theory; it’s just that periods are red and brown. Just because it’s mostly women who have them, it doesn’t mean period content is automatically baby pink."
Social media has been instrumental in the organisation’s success, helping it to reach out to a younger demographic that many traditional charities struggle to engage with. "I refuse the narrative that Instagram is not real life," says Edlin. "It’s where people have conversations that people won’t have elsewhere."
She adds that when she founded the organisation the hashtag #period returned almost no results. Now the app returns more than 1.4 million results within seconds and is the key reason the organisation’s first formal hire was a social media manager. "We want to be the friend who is never embarrassed to bring up subjects other people might find difficult to raise," says Edlin. "Shame will isolate you. We want to make sure that’s not happening."
I don't want to become the biggest charity in the UK. I want to become the fastest to dieGabby Edlin
The fundraising environment has become increasingly challenging for many charities in recent years, but there is far less concern over Bloody Good Period’s income generation than you might expect from a new charity. When asked about its strategy, Edlin is relaxed in her response. "It’s mostly public," she says. "Our core costs are covered by some brilliant philanthropists and a few grants, and some of our intake comes from people sponsoring a period. But on the whole we function entirely through individual donations. We’re aware it’s unusual: we have a trustee who is a fundraising expert and she often freaks out and says it’s unsustainable. She’s right, but it’s how people are giving right now."
It helps, perhaps, that raising lots of funds is not the be all and end all for Bloody Good Period. What matters, Edlin says, is driving change. "I don’t want to become the biggest charity in the UK," she says. "I want to become the fastest to die. If we are still doing the same thing in five years’ time, there will either be something seriously wrong with society or we will not have been doing the job well."
So although the delivery of products remains the core mission, arguably every aspect of the charity’s function is geared towards combating the silence and shame linked to periods, which extends well beyond the asylum-seeking and refugee communities. Research from Plan International UK, published in 2017, found that one in 10 girls between the ages of 14 and 21 in the UK has been unable to afford menstrual products, while almost half (49 per cent) have missed a day of school because of their period.
The message is starting to get through. In April 2019, the Department for Education announced plans to offer free period products to girls in all primary schools in England from early this year. Shortly afterwards, Penny Mordaunt, at the time the minister for women and equalities, announced a Period Poverty Taskforce, co-chaired by Plan International UK, to which Bloody Good Period will contribute.
Its new, long-anticipated charitable status is expected to help immeasurably in continuing to fuel the conversation, after a prolonged phase of wrangling with the commission. "One of the reasons it took ages was our name," Edlin says. "They thought it would be offensive to have the words ‘bloody’ and ‘period’ next to each other. We had to write a strong statement about why it was so important and the crucial nature of humour for the project."
The organisation didn’t sit around waiting for status to happen, she says, but when its registration was confirmed on 16 October she burst into tears in the middle of a packed restaurant. "Charitable status adds an additional legitimacy to all of the work we have done so far," Edlin says. "It shows other people we are a legitimate organisation, and it will make it easier for people to get involved and to give."
The charity will continue to forge its own path despite being inundated with advice, she says, from larger and more established organisations, saying everything from ‘we don’t need any new charities’ to ‘set up as part of a larger, existing organisation’ and urging her to invest more in user testimonies. "There is a difference between plugging a hole and building a movement," she says. "We are going to do this in a way that feels appropriate, right and congruent with our mission."
Does she have any reciprocal advice for larger aid organisations? "To be honest," she laughs, "I don’t think they would take advice from me!"
But when pressed, she says: "I would want to know this: have they asked the people who menstruate what they want? If yes, great. But I would also question why so many organisations continue to advertise young black women on their posters in a way that prompts us to believe that this is a woman who is poor.
"It’s problematic to continue the othering of people through charity. Although it’s a behaviour that brings in money, it’s also one that will require other acts of charity to reverse."
Big plans are afoot for the charity. It continues to build partnerships with other organisations and counts both the charity Women for Refugee Women and The Body Shop, which set up donation boxes in stores around the UK in 2019, among its partners. There are plans to increase the provision of "everything in the knickers" information workshops, led by gynaecologists at the drop-in centres, for women who are unable to access health services due to a lack of awareness or fear of deportation, and to continue working on the government taskforce.
Edlin is immensely proud of everything the organisation has achieved. "Only 10 years ago people were saying periods weren’t funny or shouldn’t be discussed: to have huge rooms of people laughing at our Bloody Funny comedy nights feels like a feminist revolution," she says. But her ultimate aim never deviates. "What would I most like to see in a year’s time?" she asks. "I would like to feel in a year’s time that we are that bit closer to not existing."
It would, she thinks, be about bloody time.