Blythe Valley CLP Meeting
Wednesday 9 January
When Janine invited me to speak this evening she wanted me to talk about our Period Poverty Campaign but within the wider context of trade unions and the Labour Party working together.
There’s a word for that.
I work in education. I like words.
Symbiosis. Independent organisations working together.
So like the heart and the lungs, independent organs that work together to form the respiratory system, so too the Labour Party and the trade unions form the Labour Movement.
In the Labour Party you can have room for individual members. What the trade unions bring is collectivism.
Strong on our own. Stronger working together.
I work at Newcastle College. I am a mentor on the College’s Pastoral Support Team. I deliver academic study skills as well as pastoral support to further and higher education students.
Newcastle College, as you know, is situated in Newcastle’s Inner West, in an area of high social deprivation.
It’s a huge college – 1250 staff, thousands of students on multiple campuses across the city.
And many, many of them living in poverty or living on the fringes of poverty.
And with my other hat I am Branch Secretary of University and College Union – UCU – a trade union of post-16 education professionals.
My UCU branch is the biggest college branch in the North East and last year we were the biggest growing college branch in the UK.
And that’s because we are an active branch – we are solid and consistent in supporting members with casework, we run a series of events throughout the year (big events and small events), we campaign on national and local issues and we recruit actively in line with national priorities targeting:
- young members
- teachers new to the profession
- teachers on insecure contracts
- particularly those in student-facing roles, supporting learning but not on teaching contracts.
UCU is a traditional trade union in that we support our members when they’re in bother with the employer and we negotiate to improve pay, contracts, terms and conditions.
But we are so much more than that.
UCU is a professional association – and that means we campaign to improve education and the conditions of education for students as well as for staff.
So. Period Poverty.
Period Poverty means not being able to afford to buy sanitary protection.
Period Poverty means not being able to access basic, everyday hygienic, self-care products.
Tampons and sanitary towels – these are not luxury items.
Tampons and sanitary towels are essential items that no woman should go without and no woman should be in a position where she has to ask for help.
And it is important that we bust taboos and myths around periods and to do this we need to break through some of the silence around talking about periods.
If we think of some of the myths around periods they are negative and not life-giving as they should be: they are not seen necessarily, as part of the lifecycle of humanity, that to have periods is about being able to bear children.
Think about the negative language – “The Curse” – and you can probably think of other terms used.
Why is this?
And we should be aware that period issues are global – international – and they affect women from puberty to post-menopause.
Some men don’t want to have sex with women when they’re on their period – some men don’t mind, of course. But a period can be seen as a ‘block’ to men doing what they want with women.
In some cultures women bleeding have to remove themselves from the home.
In some religions women aren’t allowed in places of worship when they’re bleeding.
Think of women being churched after their first period after giving birth …
Ideas of being ‘unclean’ run through this …
Period Poverty could be adopted as an issue of patriarchy, part of a bigger conversation about patriarchal structures and relations.
The feminist activist Bell Hooks said that patriarchy isn’t gendered. And I am sure we can all think of women we know in our own networks who we would expect to be sympathetic to women and about women’s issues, and who aren’t.
We should consider women going through the menopause, with irregular periods, who might experience flooding and staining of clothes, of planning what they wear around what might not show up leaks, of needing to access products and facilities through the day …
And we should remember women in prison who don’t always get the products they need to manage their periods.
My focus here though is on young women, 16-25 because they form the majority age group of students.
So. Period Poverty. How is this a trade union issue?
Period Poverty is a social issue.
The basis of socialism is about wanting everyone to have equality of access to resources.
We on the left know, that if we lift people, if we support people when they need it, then in turn we are lifting everyone, we lift society.
It is an upward spiral, an upward trajectory and can only be good.
And our trade unions – it is through our trade unions that we can put our social and our socialist values into action in the workplace – and it is our collectivism that gives us the strength to do that.
If Period Poverty exists in our workplace, if Period Poverty exists in our colleges, in our universities then yes, absolutely, Period Poverty is a trade union issue.
Period Poverty is a barrier to education and affects attendance.
It is an issue in itself but it exists in a tissue of issues that are linked to living in poverty.
At Newcastle College we have seen an increase in students requesting products from our pastoral support team.
I have also had teachers come to me and tell me that they are providing them, they are buying sanitary towels and keeping them in their drawers for their students who are in need.
Period Poverty concerns UCU members, our teachers, our educators – it is a compounding stressor on our multi-discipline juggling, overworked and hardworking colleagues.
So this starts with our students and it starts with our young women being clean, being comfortable and being able to attend their lessons.
And if these young women are attending, they are more likely to achieve their qualifications, more likely to progress to higher education and employment, more likely to have equity and equality in education.
But it goes beyond that.
Period Poverty is a result of being poor – and there is an impact of shame, of not feeling worthy, of lowered self-esteem.
And that lowered self-esteem becomes ingrained over time.
And that lowered self-esteem leads to reducing future life chances.
So our branch is hoping that by providing sanitary products to those students who need them, we can challenge the self-esteem issue, before it even starts.
Some students are comfortable asking for support. For others it can take a lot more for them to come forward. Some of that might be because this is about periods – and so we need to talk more openly about them.
This is why busting taboos and breaking walls of silence is so important.
What we also want to do is to encourage a culture of openness, where it’s ok to talk about periods and it’s ok to ask for help.
We are women. We bleed. We have periods.
We get headaches and tummy aches and backaches and we can feel a bit ‘off’ with our periods.
But we also need sanitary products to keep ourselves clean – and if we can’t afford them, then maybe we need a bit of help with that, but that is ok.
By talking more openly we create an environment where there is no shame and no stigma.
So our Period Poverty campaign is quite simple really.
Our branch looked at our funds and made a commitment until the end of the year and we will review that again in September for what we can resource next year.
We approached the College and the executive agreed a contribution.
We have also had donations from colleagues, from human resources colleagues and from external organisations.
The products are distributed through the pastoral support team – through the learning mentors, so we are working in partnership.
The mentors are the best people to do this. Our records show that 96% of all students have contact with the mentors during their time at college.
The mentors are open door, an integral part of staff teams.
We have male mentors who are perfectly comfortable discussing periods and accessing products – but ultimately it’s the students who have choice over whether they wish to see a man or a woman. There are always people available.
And there is no issue with age either – I have a number of mature students, men and women, on my caseload.
There is no stigma, no shame for any of our students speaking to a mentor.
Teaching and pastoral support are calibrated – wisdom and compassion – 2 wings of the programme of study. Symbiosis.
I have already said that Period Poverty sits within a tissue of issues.
When students go the mentors for products they open the opportunity for a conversation – it doesn’t have to be a long conversation.
But if you can’t afford to buy sanitary towels, what else can’t you afford?
Have you eaten?
Do you receive a student bursary? Have you applied?
Where are you living? Do you need support with that?
Do you need signposting to internal services or for emergency funding?
Do you need referring to external services?
Who do you live with? Withholding of sanitary products can be an indicator of domestic abuse.
We’ve had students with parents going on holiday not leaving sanitary towels behind. Well, if you’re old enough to be left on your own – if you’re 18/19 – well that’s a conversation about burgeoning adulthood and independence, about planning.
And we have people who forget, who run out. And that’s ok.
The uptake of products isn’t huge, but it’s steady.
Where I did expect to be inundated with demand we haven’t had any uptake at all.
Our adult ESOL students are at Riverside Dene, Cruddas Park. ESOL is a very supportive and supported learning environment. My colleague and I run drop-ins there every day of the week.
A lot of those ESOL students are of asylum or refugee status living on maybe £12 a week for food and toiletries. We realised that the Foodbanks are meeting their needs.
So that’s what we do and we’re doing it on a tight and finite budget.
We’ve got our loaves and our fishes – and we are seeing how far we can get.
I know some organisations subscribe t the Redbox Project. But to sign up would be to just tick a box. To actually meet the needs of women experiencing Period Poverty you need a system and a process in place for the project to deliver.
There’s also Inkind Direct and they distribute excess products from factories and supermarkets etc. I wrote to them months ago but they don’t give to colleges – I don’t understand why, but it is a real shame because that’s a real resource that we are unable to tap into.
So ours is the first Period Poverty campaign in a college in England and we launched it back in early October.
The night before our campaign launched a man on our branch said to me – and this is a direct quote:
“I think it’s really good that you’re doing this, I think it’s great that you’ve got all these women involved on the branch and I’m supportive of that …”
You know that there’s a ‘but’ coming, don’t you? ….
“But what you need is a man at the front of this campaign saying “this is a good thing””.
What would Rosie the Riveter say?
This is a women’s campaign, led by women for women.
That is not to exclude men, we welcome the support of men as our allies in the same way a white person can support an anti-racist campaign, in the same way a straight person can support an lgbt campaign.
And let’s not forget the context is education.
What would we be teaching our young people? Passivity? That women are the weaker vessel?
Gender roles and expectations are confused enough.
Let us focus on equality.
Let us focus on building all our young people up to be aware of themselves and others.
Let them be aware of what they are capable of, enable them to cast off their limitations, encourage them to take opportunities they are offered, build their resilience to bounce back when things don’t work out, give them the courage to get up and try again.
We need to teach all our young people equality of opportunity and equality of value.
Women have periods and they experience the life cycle it’s part of and the monthly cycle of release and flow.
A man can use his imagination to understand this and can empathise.
But that is not the same as experiencing the physical, the emotional and the psychological effects – of fertility, of vitality, and of how you relate that to your sense of self as a woman.
I can only speak from my own experience: but I can speak from experience:
When I was pregnant I was homeless – in Bath – a very expensive place to live.
I was lucky, I was housed before my baby was born, but I was still stuck and benefits were withheld.
This is 20 years ago. I don’t remember any economy lines or any economy products and the cheaper supermarkets weren’t in Bath.
I can remember being in Boots with my tiny baby and it didn’t matter which way I counted the coins in my purse, they wouldn’t add up to as much as I needed them to.
I had to make a choice – sanitary towels or nappies?
Well, it isn’t a choice.
And I remember my eyes filling, but I couldn’t give way to tears.
And I remember the warmth of my baby in his sling, of the smell of his hair.
And I made a conscious decision. To acquire.
I used to acquire loo roll from public loos in a museum in Bath and improvised sanitary towels.
I say acquire – I know stealing is wrong – I say acquire because I told myself that I would repay what I took, when I could.
And I did repay, when I could.
And I hope, through driving through this branch campaign I am able to give something back and I hope that I can prevent some women from being in that same position.
So how did our branch get round to putting Period Poverty on our agenda?
In the decade I’ve been working on the branch we’d never had a women’s rep.
In September we appointed Niki as our women’s officer.
And it’s incredible, really, what this one, small action has led to.
In just 4 months we have:
- organised trainings in fgm, menopause, domestic violence, sexual violence
- organised an event on sexual violence headlined by Vera Baird
- joined local and national action on women’s issues
- adopted UCU’s statement on sexual violence
- appointed and trained a rep to lead on cases of sexual violence
- and, of course, running the first Period Poverty campaign at a college in England
This one small action – appointing Niki – has led to over 20 other actions.
It’s been quite something, for me personally.
We’re a big branch, we’re casework heavy and we’re busy.
This one action has made such a change.
A change from casework and negotiating pay, terms and conditions.
A change from reacting and reaction – to planning and proaction.
They say a change is as good as a rest – but we’re not resting.
18/19 has been our year of women and women’s issues – and the year’s not over yet, and there’s more to come.
So. If you take anything from this evening, then let it be this:
Let people in. And let them bring their ideas with them.
Change can be good.
UCU wants change.
UCU’s national position on Period Poverty is that would like the government to follow Scotland’s example and provide sanitary protection free, in all schools, colleges and universities.
That change needs to come from the very top.
I saw Theresa May dance on to stage at the Tory Party Conference – and I thought she has never had to worry about whether she can go rollerblading or windsurfing or whatever – because she’s never been in a position where her life chances have been affected by poverty.
And it is appalling, I think, that we have a woman leading the government, a woman in a position to enact positive changes for our women and our girls – who doesn’t.
So we are wanting a change that has been promised by Angela Raynor, promised by Jeremy Corbyn, who have said a Labour Government will provide sanitary protection free in all schools, colleges and universities.
If we lift people up and support people when they need it, we lift everybody, remember that.