Young Aussie of the Year’s global mission to end period poverty

  

18 October 2021

Article from October 2021 edition of INPractice

Lack of access to menstrual products a major driver behind gender inequality

Young Australian of the Year Isobel Marshall vividly recalls the jubilation of Kenyan school girls when she and good friend Eloise Hall ventured into Africa on a mission to change lives.

“In Kenya when we handed out menstruation pads the girls were literally dancing and throwing them up in the air,’’ Isobel says.

“Because for them that packet meant they could stay in school for a week while they were bleeding, it meant when they walked for three hours to and from school they wouldn’t have to worry about stains going on to their dress and then being embarrassed in class. 

“That was very much a ticket to freedom for them and they were very confident to share their excitement about it.’’

For Isobel, 23, breaking taboos around menstruation and ending period poverty have become her driving passion, one which has elevated her to national celebrity status. Period poverty, the lack of access to sanitary products due to issues of affordability, stigma or lack of awareness, is a major force behind gender inequality, she says.

In South Australia, up to 25 per cent of girls will skip school because of their period and inability to access menstrual products.

In developing countries some 30 per cent of young girls will stop going to school permanently as soon as they start having their period.

“It was shocking to see those kind of statistics play out in reality in front of us,’’ Isobel says. 

“We met multiple young (Kenyan) girls at home because they had started their period and weren’t taking part in school anymore. 

“When you stop schooling at 11, 12 years old, your chance of employment down the track is much more reduced and then you don’t have that financial independence. Often you have children as a result because getting married and having children is the next source of security.

“So you see lots of child brides, lots of child mothers, and obviously that cycle of poverty continues as well as that cycle of gender inequality.’’

Isobel and Eloise have been friends since they first met at Walford Anglican School for Girls in Year 7, the pair going on to be voted school captain and vice-captain respectively in their senior year. The two co-founded social enterprise business TABOO in 2019 in their final year at Walford, aged just 18.

A social enterprise is an organisation that applies commercial strategies to improve the wellbeing of others. The intrepid teens managed to crowdfund $56,000 to launch their dream, which now has its office in the city’s Hindmarsh Square.

TABOO sells high-quality, ethically sourced, organic cotton pads and tampons to Australians through National Pharmacies, On the Run outlets and Foodland, with 100 per cent of net profits going to One Girls – a charity providing education programs for girls and women in Sierra Leone and Uganda. 



TABOO has also partnered with Vinnies Women’s Crisis centre, providing free access to pads and tampons for vulnerable women in need, as well as supplying sanitary products to the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council.

TABOO’s Pad it Forward program offers the public – be they nurses, teachers, corporate or community clients - the opportunity to subscribe to its products on behalf of someone else who needs it in Australia, via the [email protected] website.

Aside from spreading the gospel of good sanitation, Eloise currently studies a double degree in Business and International Studies at Flinders University. Isobel is a full-time student at the University of Adelaide, studying a Bachelor of Medicine (MBBS) and a Bachelor of Surgery - or at least she did until unexpected fame beckoned.

In January she was crowned Young Australian of the Year for her work with TABOO. As a consequence, she has taken a gap year to use the sudden spotlight to promote her cause.


Above: Isobel Marshall and Prime Minister Scott
Morrison celebrate her Young Australian of the 
Year win.


“That was completely unexpected. I was anonymously nominated at the end of last year, so got a call about it and, yeah, I didn’t expect to then go to Canberra and then receive the award,’’ Isobel says.

“I was meant to be doing my fourth year of uni this year, so I did my first week of placement (at the RAH) and then I went to Canberra for the weekend just assuming I’d have an incredible experience meeting inspiring people.

“But when the awards were announced almost immediately we had such an influx of orders, people wanting to buy our products as well as retail opportunities, collaborations, media opportunities. Obviously, what we saw there was this incredible opportunity to use a national platform to spread our mission -which is that period poverty shouldn’t exist.

“So that was incredible. It was a role I wish I could have shared with my co-founder (Eloise) as well. I tried as hard as I could to make that happen. I tried to nominate her but by the time I found out about it, it was too late.

“So, we’ve really just used this opportunity for the whole team, representing the extremely generous efforts of the entire team (nine volunteers) and doing what we can to use the platform to spread the mission. It’s been very encouraging.’’

While period poverty is endemic in many developing countries (in Sierra Leone, just 10 per cent of girls had even heard of menstrual products), incredibly in first world South Australia it remains a major issue.

A survey last year of more than 2500 South Australian school students and school leavers found half had not been able to buy or access pads or tampons to manage their period. A quarter had missed school because of it.

About two-thirds of students said they were uncomfortable talking about their periods with teachers and a staggering 70 per cent said they had, at times, resorted to alternatives such as toilet paper, tissues, socks, and even ripped sheets because they did not have a pad or tampon.

Last February the South Australian Government committed $450,000 to provide sanitary items to girls in Year 5 and older at public schools for the next three years.  By comparison, the Victorian Government has committed $20.7 million to provide products, dispensing machines and menstrual education to all public schools until mid-2023.

“It (SA’s commitment) certainly feels like a band-aid response to the current advocacy efforts around period poverty,’’ Isobel says. 

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction but that’s not going to supply for all the people who need the products. 

“And then I guess the conversation starts with ‘whose responsibility is it to provide these products?’. We liken pads and tampons to toilet paper in the way that they mop up a bodily fluid that people who have a uterus can’t help, and we certainly don’t expect students, employees or members of the public to pack their own toilet paper in their bag. Why do we expect especially young people, especially people in financial distress, to cater for their own needs in that area?

“Education is a huge opportunity for us to address menstrual stigma. There’s a lot of conversation surrounding what age young people should engage in conversations around menstruation and whether that be split gendered, whether girls should be taught about menstruation separately from boys or whether it should be a combined effort, and there’s arguments for both.

“Certainly the stats and the research suggest that boys should be taught about it before the stereotypes and stigma develops and that generally means before girls start even getting their period, which is around 11, 12 years of age.

“So the conversation should be started in a very natural and organic way even before that age bracket for both boys and girls and then the more in-depth education around how to best deal with your period and all the practicalities should come across in the next couple of years for the menstruating students.’’

In some countries, such as India, “conversation around periods and female anatomy is hugely taboo’’.
“In India even the female teachers and the female students didn’t want to talk about it, so that was very much a barrier,’’ Isobel said of their trip to the subcontinent.

“We found in general the issues surrounding period poverty in Kenya were more about accessibility and affordability. In India it was more about the stigma and the lack of conversation. 

“In Kenya the teachers and the students were really open to discussing the issue of period poverty. Obviously, you don’t frame it as period poverty when you are over there because these people are living in poverty. 

“In India we had to select our words carefully and the teachers weren’t involved in the discussion like they were in Kenya. They would kind of say ‘OK, you can talk to the class’ and they would sit at the back and we would just choose our words carefully, so it felt more like being sanitary than dealing with a period.’’

Isobel first travelled to Kenya with her family at age 13, as well as South Sudan.

“Mum and Dad have been heavily involved with multiple projects in Kenya and South Sudan,’’ she says. 

“Dad’s in the construction industry, they were building a health centre in Bor (a city in South Sudan), so we went to visit that building and see how it was going. 

“Mum and Dad have always been so involved in overseas projects. I’ve been exposed to it (other countries) from a young age, definitely exposed to the fact that not everyone grows up in privilege and is well educated, with all those privileged things in my life that I take for granted. I’m very grateful for that because it’s given me perspective.’’

Isobel says far from being cloaked in shame, the female body should be viewed as one of the world’s natural wonders.

“When you look into the biology and the physiology behind it the whole process of menstruation and the monthly cycle is incredible,’’ she says.

“It’s controlled by such intricate hormonal balances and it inherently affects the person throughout the month in different ways, whether that be beneficial or sometimes not beneficial. 

“There’s definitely a need for us to reframe conversations - especially with young people when they start their period - in much more of a positive light in the sense that now your body is strong enough to create a human which is pretty incredible.

“And we really don’t want to take away the power that it brings just by covering it in shame instead.’’

For more information visit www.tabooau.co


Click here to read the October 2021 edition of INPractice