Young Australian of The Year, Isobel Marshall, Wants To Talks About Periods

2021 Young Australian of The Year Isobel Marshall has helped women around the world by breaking down the stigma around menstruation and period poverty. Here, she pens a piece on exactly that.

Bloodshed. Some squirm at the sight of it; some are heartbroken at the news of it. Some even elect to medically induce it for the benefit of others that need it. No matter how we react to it, we can all understand the importance of blood in our lives – and the importance of it staying inside the blood vessels!

But there’s a type of bloodshed that is physiological. A bloodshed that contributes to life, growth and constant rejuvenation. Half of our population experiences this bloodshed every single month for their entire reproductive life. It’s an experience crucial to the continuation of our human species. Yet, it is hidden, shamed and often left for the individual to practically and financially deal with alone – and in silence.

As 17 year olds, my best friend Eloise Hall and I had experienced over 120 periods between the two of us. Despite our years of experience, good health, and privilege living in Developed Australia, we were certainly not immune from the complexities of owning a uterus; the awkwardness, cramps, and unexpected visits from ‘Auntie Flo’, skipped classes and hormonal fluctuations.

If this was our experience as financially secure, confident young women going to a girl’s school in a city with shops just down the road, what did menstruation look like in other parts of the world, where financial pressures, geographical isolation or cultural factors played a part?

We started researching and were shocked to discover that 30% of our counterparts in Developing Countries would drop out of school as soon as they got their period, left to become child brides with a lack of financial independence. Often with no option but to be swallowed up by the relentless poverty cycle. We learnt that when pads are unaffordable or inaccessible, dirty kitchen sponges, mattress rippings and even organic matter like sawdust are used to soak up the blood. In countries with a high prevalence of female genital mutilation, these unhygienic alternatives can pose huge infection risk and subsequent health and fertility complications.

Why was such a normal part of life leading to such catastrophic outcomes for uterus owners around the world? More importantly, why was no one talking about it? The answer to that question is summed up in one completely frustrating and complex word: stigma. For centuries, a dangerous cocktail of gender inequality, a lack of biological understanding, myths and cultural practices have tainted the way we perceive menstruation. As a result, menstruators have been left to fend for themselves during ‘that time of the month’, shamed for the same organ that gave life to their father, brother, mother and sister.

Suddenly, any awkwardness we once felt about our own periods was replaced with anger. This incredible, life-giving, and extremely common biological process was one of the greatest barriers to education, employment and social inclusion for our fellow menstruators.

It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the phrase Period Poverty. It’s a term used to describe when financial, geographical or social factors compromise a menstruator’s ability to access appropriate products, support or medical care to deal with their period.

Being so aware of our privilege to afford good quality products every month, we began to wonder how big the Australian market for period products was. With a market value of $400,000,000, the disparity between those who could afford products and those who couldn’t was undeniable. But what upset us the most was the clear contrast in outcomes for those who lived in period poverty and those who didn’t.

What if we could bridge that gap in a sustainable way? What if we could sell our own brand of organic cotton period products to this reliable Australian market and dedicate net profits to fighting period poverty around the world? As 17 year olds with all the energy, healthy naivety and passion required, we decided to give it a go.

Five years later, TABOO is a brand of certified organic cotton pads and tampons with customers around the country who are passionate about eradicating global period poverty and challenging the stigma around menstruation. We know that many Australians also experience period poverty, so our ‘pay it forward’ program encourages customers to subscribe to our pads on behalf of a woman in Australia who needs it. We advocate, educate and campaign to spark positive intersectional conversation around menstruation between people from all walks of life; all genders, backgrounds, religions and cultures. We strive to shift the tone from one that is shameful and negative to one that is celebratory and guided by respect. We demand that employers, leaders, governments and caregivers understand and facilitate the role of periods in the lives of those they serve.

With the health of menstruators as our focus, we quickly learnt more about endometriosis, a condition that affects one in every nine Australian women. Despite debilitating symptoms such as extremely painful periods, significant blood loss, nausea and fatigue, women have been told for centuries that their experience is normal and the symptoms are in their head. This, along with an average diagnosis delay of eight years, is proof that we need more time, research, funding and awareness invested into female reproductive diseases. Further, we need them to be taken seriously in healthcare facilities, workplaces, schools and communities.

The backbone of TABOO is our social enterprise model, with ‘profit for purpose’ and social impact being a huge focus for our team. I have been fortunate to work on the curating panel for The Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2021, in collaboration with the University of Adelaide and Illuminate Adelaide. Our purpose is to fill 25 slots over the weekend of July 17, with inspiring speakers, panels, debates and ideas that deserve a stage. Alongside other passionate and innovative South Australians, Eloise and I will use one of these slots to discuss the huge potential for social and practical change if social enterprises are better supported in a legal, financial and structural sense.

This model is hugely important, as it is the vehicle we utilise to sustainably strive towards our mission of eradicating period poverty. All of our decisions as a business seek to answer the question; how can we best support people around the world on their period? Selling our own line of good quality period products is just one of the answers.

With all that said, if you have a uterus, send it our love. And if you have a loved one with a uterus, don’t let them forget the significance and beauty behind what their body can do.

2021 Young Australian of The Year Isobel Marshall a will be one of the curators and speakers at the 2021 Adelaide Festival of Ideas, from the 15-18 July. Find out more here.
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