For my second interview on Jo Fisher Writes, I got in touch with Kirsty Bates, the woman who founded The Homeless Period Southampton. After the revelation that schoolgirls in Leeds and across the UK couldn’t afford basic sanitary products, charities have been working hard to combat this widespread #PeriodPoverty – and Kirsty is one volunteer who has taken it upon herself to start her own branch of The Homeless Period and make a difference.
Since the launch, locals have been donating in their hoards, and so far it’s been a huge success; you might even say there’s been a heavy flow of support and donations!
Kirsty shares her experiences of setting up a charity, volunteering, and her knowledge on what homelessness means for women on their period. We’re talking MoonCups, tampons and sexual health.
Hi Kirsty, thank you so much for taking the time out to have a chat about your work! Could you start by just telling us a little more about yourself?
“Hi Jo, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity! And yes, of course!
“I was born in Southampton in 1994, and after graduating from university I started working for YMCA Fairthorne Group – a local community charity providing services to children, young people and families across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. After gaining experience in community engagement and fundraising, I joined the team at Girlguiding’s UK HQ in London as a Community & Events Officer, which is where I am now.
“I think a lot of people forget that Girl Guides is actually a charity, but the organisation has done a huge amount of work in promoting the voices of girls and campaigning for equality. Most recently, our team of Advocates led the organisation’s support of the campaign to make Sex & Relationships Education statutory in schools, which was incredible! It’s a real honour to work for them, and it’s definitely solidified my passion for supporting girls and women.
“I’m also an English graduate, and spent some time teaching English in Barcelona before heading home – so overall, I’m all for books, food, exploring, and social action!”
A few months ago you launched Southampton’s branch of The Homeless Period. Could you just tell us more about the overall campaign, what it does, and why it’s so important?
“The Homeless Period is a volunteer-led campaign designed to provide vulnerable women and girls with access to necessary sanitary protection. It works by securing donations of sanitary items from the wonderfully generous public, before distributing these into care packages to deliver to local organisations in need.
“At the moment, we’re donating items to YMCA Southampton’s supported housing unit for young people, homeless charity Society of St. James, young people’s help and advice centre No Limits, and Trinity Winchester – a day shelter with dedicated services and projects for women fleeing from domestic violence.
“For me it’s so important as, due to the stigma of periods, I think people often forget that shelters and charities frequently have to provide these products to women and girls in need. With tampons and pads still be taxed as ‘luxury items’, this creates bills that charitable organisations can sometimes struggle to foot.”
What made you decide to get involved? Have you done anything like this before?
“Like many people, I was heartbroken when the news hit that schoolgirls in Leeds were missing school because they could not afford basic sanitary protection. The charity that stepped-up to address this need was Freedom4Girls. Founder Tina Leslie stated, ‘Nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is happening here.’
“I think that really resonated with me. It made me realise that girls in our own hometowns may be struggling to cope with their periods and yet they’re going unnoticed – all because we’re all too afraid to talk openly about it.”
“As #PeriodPoverty continued to gain exposure, it introduced me to charities and movements tackling the issue of helping vulnerable and homeless women access sanitary care. Sadly, however, all of them were operating outside of Southampton: London, Liverpool, and Birmingham to name a few.
“It made me wonder whether or not this was in fact an issue in our city, so the first place I turned to was my old colleagues at YMCA Southampton’s supported housing unit for young people. Within minutes, Housing Manager Louisa Bunting responded to me – confirming that, yes, their charity really does struggle to provide sufficient menstrual care to the girls and young women they have living at the YMCA. As Louisa told me – many of their young tenants flee their homes or temporary accommodation with absolutely nothing.
“While I’ve volunteered and worked for charities before, I’ve never actually started my own grassroots movement. It was difficult to know exactly where to begin – but like most things these days, social media has been a vital tool.”
How has the campaign been going so far then? What response have you had from the people of Southampton and local areas?
“People are amazing! There’s no other word for it. Within days of creating the Facebook page for The Homeless Period Southampton, I was met with waves of support from local student societies, teachers, charity workers, business owners, and Period People from all walks of life!
“People’s determination to get on-board with the movement and volunteer their time and resources has been so incredibly humbling, and I couldn’t have done it without them!”
“I’ve built some brilliant friendships with staff members at local charities and shelters, as well as staff members working at our donation stations – they’ve been brilliant advocates by hosting our donation boxes and letting their workplaces be overrun with tampons!
“I was even invited to meet local councillors at Winchester City Council last month, and it was a wonderful moment to be surrounded by so many successful women with the power to make a change!”
What challenges have you faced and what have been your proudest moment so far?
“My biggest challenge so far has been having to relocate. When I started the campaign I was living in Winchester and commuting to central London for work, but unfortunately it just wasn’t sustainable, and so I took the decision to move to South West London, meaning I’m now playing a significantly more remote role in the coordination of The Homeless Period for the time being.
“However, the wonderful thing is that I have such an incredible team of volunteers which is growing every day, and they have been invaluable in ensuring that the campaign actually is starting to sustain itself.
“When the donation boxes get full, I get notified, and then within a day I have a volunteer ready and raring to collect and redistribute them, ensuring the cycle can continue. So really, I guess that’s both my biggest challenge and my proudest moment rolled into one!”
How did you go about setting the branch up, in practical terms? Tell us a bit more about the hard work that goes into running The Homeless Period Southampton.
“My priority – as with any campaign – is to ensure there’s actually a need for it. I used my connections from my work with YMCA Fairthorne Group to determine four local charities that were in-need of donations – some of which I reached out to via social media, and others via email.
“The next step was securing donation stations. I invested in four big plastic boxes from Poundland, created some posters, and got in touch with a bunch of local organisations, such as cafes, restaurants, bookshops, community centres, churches and libraries. I focused mostly on those in which I already knew they had a strong interest in supporting their local community, such as Rice Up Wholefoods, The Art House Cafe, and two YMCA Community Branches, who got back to me almost instantly.
“The next stage was the volunteer recruitment – whereby I relied heavily on social media. I created a Facebook page for the campaign, followed by a closed group for interested volunteers. Here I had a platform to reach-out to people and inform them of what the campaign involved.
“Nowadays, I keep it updated with collection and redistribution opportunities, as well as wider events across the local area and beyond if people want to get involved; from donating items to various drives, to panel discussions in London!
“Once the campaign had found its feet a little, I sought the support of local councillors and teachers – as well as promoting the work of other Homeless Period branches. Just recently, I had meeting with Jess Phillips, Head of Ethics & Philosophy at Crestwood College in Eastleigh, who has since done an amazing job of getting her staff, students and parents involved with the mind of finding even more local charities and food banks to donate to.”
Are you involved in any other causes, campaigns or charity work? What other causes are you really passionate about?
“Since leaving university, I have become an active volunteer with Brook Charity – the leading sexual health and wellbeing charity for young people. They often provide some fantastic opportunities for young people to share their views on matters relating to health – be it physical, mental or sexual, and get their voices heard.
“Just last month I was able to attend a workshop at The Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians with Brook to choose the top 10 research priorities for contraception, and have since become Brook’s Lead Volunteer for Participation and Volunteering – working to help find even more roles and opportunities for young people.
“I’m also a big follower of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign, a coalition of pro-choice groups and movements designed to call for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution so that full reproductive health services, including abortion, can be made available in line with best medical practice, international human rights norms and the will of the majority of people in Ireland.”
“In short, I’m all about reproductive rights, youth development and women’s empowerment!”
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to get involved, or who would like to start their own branch in their local area?
“Get in touch! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to get involved in Southampton – be it volunteering to collect and redistribute our donations, to starting their own collection in their workplace, to finding a new cause or charity to donate to… the list is endless!
“If you’re looking at starting your own branch, definitely reach-out to Keeley and Phoebe at email@example.com, the original campaign founders, who can definitely advise you on how to get started.”
“The main thing, of course, is to find charities and causes local to you who require donations. Demand is crucial – you don’t want to find yourself knee-deep in tampons with nowhere to give them to!”
Where’s the best place to start if people want to kick off their own campaign, or cause, especially if they have to work around employment or studies?
“Running a campaign like this can be incredibly intense to do alone, and yet the nature of the cause means you may find yourself introduced to a wealth of people who share the same determination as you – so get them on board!
“One of the first groups of people willing to help me were local student societies – in particular, the HOMED Society at University of Southampton, and Southampton Solent’s FemSoc. Network as much as you can – send emails, send Facebook messages, and follow people on Twitter! The more volunteers you can recruit, the more chance you’ll have of growing your campaign and sharing the responsibility!”
What’s next for you, and The Homeless Period Southampton?
“One thing I’m really keen on in seeking a sustainable solution to the issue. I know many women have switched over to the likes of period pants and MoonCups, which are not only better for the environment, but also so much more cost effective!
“The only issue is that to use these items, women need access to clean water, washing facilities etc., which sadly cannot always be guaranteed – particularly for women living in difficult conditions or away from a permanent home.
“Not only this, but MoonCups for instance are investment buys – often at about £20 a cup, which sadly is not something our campaign is in a position to fund for every local woman in need. I’ve even been in touch with employees from LUSH UK Ltd.’s HQ in Poole, who are also experimenting with solutions.
“It is a challenge, but I know other homeless period movements – such as Bloody Good Period in London – have recently run a ‘Period Crafternoon’ in which people meet to create washable sanitary pads good for up to 30-40 washes for local asylum seeker centres, which sounds like a fantastic way to start. This is definitely something I’m looking into currently!
“Other next steps would definitely be to make a difference to local schoolgirls.
“I’m gravely concerned that young women in our area are struggling to access basic sanitary care, or feel unprepared for the changes their bodies are going through.”
“This is coming from personal experience; I was one of the unfortunate girls who started her period aged just nine, and at the time – my school toilets didn’t even have sanitary bins! Not to mention I didn’t get taught about periods at school until I was already 11! Lucky for me, my mum had ‘the talk’ with me at home – but I know full-well that’s not the case for all girls, which is a serious concern of mine.”
What has been inspiring you lately?
“It’s been incredibly inspiring to see that #PeriodPoverty hit General Election 2017 manifestos – so much so, that the BBC Newsbeat compiled an article detailing exactly what each party were pledging in regards to tackling the issue.
“Two campaigners that stick out most in my mind are Laura Coryton, who launched the petition to end Tampon Tax, and Amika George, who is calling for PM Theresa May to provide all school girls on free school meals with free sanitary products as well. They’re both incredible voices in the ongoing campaign to break the silence around periods, and are both worth following on Twitter for daily inspiration!”
Have you been reading any good books, listening to any good music, or watching any good films recently?
“If you haven’t already, go out and grab a copy of Sara Pascoe’s Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body.”
“I was lucky enough to see Sara Pascoe perform some of her stand-up at a benefit gig for the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and she was fantastic. Her book is an insightful and hilarious tour of what it means to be a woman from hair to relationships to periods to consent – and she’s probably one of the most relatable female voices I’ve ever heard.
“What’s even more fantastic is that she has an entire index of charitable organisations working to promote equality for girls and women across the world.”
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us! How can readers keep up-to-date with The Homeless Period Southampton, or get in touch with yo?