Combating Period Poverty

Some women of Celia Hodson’s age carry photos of their grandchildren in their purse. But not Hodson. She carries around a photo of 330,000 sanitary towels in boxes, taken at a warehouse on the outskirts of Glasgow. The photo is a reminder of the moment when, after a lifetime of working for social enterprises, Hodson decided to start one herself.

Hodson’s business Hey Girls is based on a simple “buy one, give one” model for sanitary towels: for every box of sanitary towels bought, the company donates another to a woman in need. Before Hey Girls launched on 8 January this year, Hodson had nightmares about the business not taking off, and being surrounded by boxes of towels in her home by the sea in Dunbar, Scotland.

But within the first month, Hodson had donated 3,500 boxes of sanitary towels, with subscription numbers for the service growing every week. Hey Girls is delivering to food banks, women’s groups, YMCAs and several schools where teachers had previously been buying tampons to distribute to students in need. Hodson has received many letters and emails from donors remembering desperate times when they were unable to afford essentials and wanting to help others out of similar situations.

Hey Girls seems to have hit on a trend for more proactive responses to period poverty. (Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake shows a single mother stealing sanitary towels from a supermarket.) A campaign for #freeperiods by 18-year-old student Amika George has called for the Government to give free menstrual products to children from low-income families, while another campaign demanding the Government “Stop Taxing Periods. Period” resulted in the Treasury agreeing to axe a tax on sanitary products by 2022.

But for Hodson, period poverty masks a more serious issue.

“We talk about tampon tax, but if you can’t afford a pound, you can’t afford 95p,” she says. “The thing we’re not talking about is poverty – deeply embedded poverty – when you’re making decisions about whether to give up food, or heat, light and power. How do you bring your children up to feel like everyone else’s child? We’re not getting into that.”

It’s a problem Hodson knows firsthand. She got married “very young” and had three children close together. When the marriage didn’t work out, she decided it would be easier and better to bring up the children alone than for them to see their parents arguing. Hodson says the four of them are all very close as a result – even though one daughter now lives in Australia.

She was asked to speak on two panels for International Women’s Day – one in Edinburgh in the morning, and one in London in the afternoon – but she says that all the travel is worth it because it means she will get to squeeze her new grandson, born to her son in London.

It’s Hodson’s daughters, however, who convinced her to start Hey Girls. After her children left home, she worked in Australia, India, Brazil and came back to East Lothian, eventually settling in Dunbar for its huge skies. “I walk my dogs on the beach every morning and I don’t see a soul. It’s a beautiful place,” she says.

For a while, she thought she might retire. But then she had a conversation with her daughters about how to raise money to help women afford sanitary products and one said they should set up a social enterprise. “I was at that stage when I thought, oh I can just live a quiet life and garden in the summer, but one daughter said, ‘You’ve got capacity, you can do this.’ It is full-on but it’s phenomenally fulfilling.”

As a social enterprise, Hey Girl does not take a profit. Hodson and her team do not take salaries, though many of them have busy lives working other jobs and raising families. Hodson received some support through UnLtd, a lottery-funded charity that gives grants and training to social entrepreneurs, and the media trust which connected her to two young women who helped around social media for the launch.

They also tested the product with girls from around the country in a Pizza Hut. They discussed what products the girls used, how they felt about them and then tested pads they liked, taking stickers off and putting them on their jeans. Then they did the whole thing again with the name and the branding.

Those girls from the consultation now appear on the box. “When we all agreed it needs to have girls on the box we asked our volunteers and they said, ‘Oh no! I’m, not pretty enough.’ But we had a fantastic photographer who put everyone at ease.”

Hey Girls is now in talks with retailers, including supermarkets. Some councils are purchasing the product for schools, replacing other more expensive contracts with commercial brands. Hodson and her team are also looking at producing a package to fit in vending machines and ways to break up the bigger packets into pick-and-mix bags of one or two towels to distribute when someone is caught short.

The pads are made in China out of bamboo and corn starch, to make sure they are biodegradable and more natural than bleached cotton fibre products. While supermarkets are interested, Hodson says she has been learning a lot about how shelf hierarchy works – with the biggest brands getting shelf space at the eye level of the customer.

Hey Girls will need that kind of scale to even begin to tackle the severity of the problem of period poverty in the UK. “If some of the big players could do buy one give one – and they could do it in a heartbeat – they could have a bigger impact. If they did, there would be no need for Hey Girls.”

I ask her who she means. “Bodyform could do it,” she says. “But they won’t, because they have to make a profit. That’s why social enterprises exist: in the gaps where private business is not operating; where it’s too difficult, or not profit-making.”

Hodson says the Government also has a role beyond cutting tax on sanitary products. “The tampon tax is a bit of smoke and mirrors,” she says. “In Scotland we were talking about putting free vending machines in public toilets – but it still costs 40p to use a public toilet in Scotland.”

Instead, the Government needs to have more conversations with people in poverty about what would help, Hodson says: “When I was bringing up my children, you don’t want to talk about how hard your life is because you’re living on a knife edge and you’re just trying to cope. There needs to be more listening happening.”