Years of campaigning for #FreePeriods culminated on Period Pride Day 2016, a national day of action in February when many organisations around the UK simultaneously lobbied the government to remove the so-called "tampon tax". In reply to this mass activism, the government agreed to scrap the luxury tax on menstrual care products. However, the tax still stands.
Paying for menstrual care products, especially with an added luxury tax, contributes to gendered financial inequality. Furthermore, the "tampon tax" is also an intersectional issue because additional difficulties arise if, for example, you are in prison, disabled, a person of colour, trans* and/or homeless. Menstrual care products are often withheld and rationed in prisons, leading to cruel stigmatisation and low self-esteem. Certain disabilities can make menstruating extremely painful and negatively affect people's mental health. Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women earn less than white women, meaning that extra financial inequality hits them harder. Menstruation is consistently discussed in cisnormative terms, actively excluding some people who have periods such as trans men and people with other gender identities. These are just a few matters to consider when contextualising the effects of paying for menstrual care products on the whole population.
Another important consideration is that, while being on your period can be uncomfortable for anyone, being on your period while homeless can be a nightmare. Homeless shelters frequently complain that they are in short supply of menstrual care products and the reasons for this are probably threefold. Firstly, people don't consider the implications of homeless periods. Secondly, people are (perhaps unconsciously) embarrassed to donate menstrual care products due to the stigma which tells us periods are taboo, private and dirty. And finally, they are expensive!!!
This is why AFC Unity, a radically alternative women's football club in Sheffield, are launching their campaign initiative Football for #FreePeriods.
AFC Unity were founded in 2014 as an independent women's football team with feminist politics and a grassroots approach. They are focused on returning the game to its cohesive community origins, empowering women who were historically excluded from the sport. The club run non-competitive "Solidarity Soccer" skills training sessions twice-weekly using Fairtrade balls and ethical kit as well as competing in the Sheffield & Hallamshire Women's County Football League. Co-Founder Jane Watkinson said: "It's important to offer an alternative to women's teams which are dependent upon and overshadowed by their corresponding men's team. Women's teams are too often seen as 'add-ons' to men's clubs, sometimes used as cash cows to bring funding into the club rather than being driven by a value system shaped by the interests of women and by a real desire to develop the women's game in a positive way."
There are other teams around the country embracing a similar ethos such as Easton Cowgirls in Bristol and Republica Internationale in Leeds. Jane said: "It is important for women's teams to have a feminist identity so that we challenge concepts of what a 'woman' is and does and also foster an environment of empowerment and positivity through skill sharing, collectivity and helping create positive role models that will hopefully help influence girls wanting to get involved in the sport. Football can affect wider things than what happens on a pitch for 90 minutes."
AFC Unity run community projects to promote their values of empowering women, tackling gender misconceptions, promoting social justice and opposing oppression. Jane said: "We started our weekly Football for Food campaign in 2015 encouraging players, fans and spectators to make donations for food banks before our home games. It was after our first season and we wanted to do something that put our ethics into practice. The increasing scale and extent of food poverty and the use of food banks drove our desire to help make a difference to our local community, making real tangible links between football and the ability to achieve social change. Not only have we collected over 800kg of food since running the campaign, but we have also raised awareness of the reasons for using food banks, challenging myths and stereotypes."
In response to the "tampon tax", AFC Unity are now developing Football for Food to incorporate the #FreePeriods movement, encouraging donations of tampons and pads for homeless shelters. They aim to fight period stigma, make a stand against the continuing tax and help people in need. Jane said: "The initiative ties in Football for Food with our unique feminist vision. It helps highlight awareness of period shame and so helps tackle this while also highlighting the expense of such necessary products."
Allowing the topic of periods to be taboo leads to body shame as well as silence on the issue of the tax. Jane said: "#FreePeriods is about us being confident and happy with our bodies, embracing it, and being confident enough to talk about periods and issues associated with it - especially when historically women have faced abuse and oppression for things such as periods. For example, the stigma surrounding periods relates to the idea that women are 'weak' and 'hysterical' which is a stereotype we are dedicated to eradicating."
Jane explained why people should get involved in AFC Unity, saying: "We offer something for everyone. Whether you have never kicked a ball and are wanting to give it a go, are returning from an injury or have played 11-a-side football and want to be part of a club that has an alternative, positive and inclusive coaching style and philosophy. You don't get shouted at for making mistakes and you can be creative and enjoy your football. Also, even if you don't like to play football, we have a range of volunteering opportunities such as with Football for #FreePeriods, sports journalism, sports psychology, sports physiotherapy and more."
Jane made a final appeal that is relevant to us all. She said: "When donating to homeless shelters and food banks this winter, please remember a box of menstrual care products alongside your warm clothes and blankets. It might be just the gift someone needs this holiday season."
AFC Unity founders co-work at Union St, a co-operative non-profit social enterprise in Sheffield, where they are hoping to expand their network to involve more women from across the city. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.