The Red Box Project
The Red Box Project is a community-based not-for-profit initiative that aims to support young people throughout their period by providing red boxes filled with free products (pads, tampons, underwear and tights) to local schools and colleges. We are a project fuelled by the kindness of others who donate the items for our boxes.
The project was founded in March 2017 by three friends who had read that lack of access to period products can lead to young people missing out their right to an education. They wanted to give young people in their local area access to menstrual products, so they contacted several secondary schools in Portsmouth to ask if a constantly stocked box of menstrual products would be welcomed. The feedback from teachers was that the issue was real and the resource was needed.
They then invited individuals from across the country to be a part of this movement and the response was overwhelming. From Scotland to Cornwall, as well as overseas, people began to group together to set up Red Box Projects to support their local community. They fundraised, collected, had craft sales and donations drives to make sure their boxes never became empty.
To date, the project has over 2,200 active red boxes placed in schools, colleges and youth clubs; cared for by our over 400 volunteer Red Box Project coordinators.
To find out more please visit our website: http://redboxproject.org/
Anna Miles, co-founder the Red Box Project
What is your role at The Red Box Project?
I am co-founder of The Red Box Project. My role within the project is to support our over 350 volunteer coordinators and manage the central emails. It is this work that connects people and projects to each other and enables us to extend our support to as many places as possible. The role has grown beyond anything I could have ever comprehended and is managed around full time work and my two incredible little girls who are my inspiration.
What is the Red Box Project and how did it come about?
The Red Box Project is a community-driven, not-for-profit initiative that aims to support young people throughout their period by providing red boxes, fully stocked with a range of pads, tampons, underwear and tights which are then placed, by one of our volunteer coordinators into educational settings and youth clubs across the country.
When I read May Bulman's article in March 2017, which revealed that girls were missing out on their education because they did not have access to menstrual products, I was enraged. Young people were being denied their right to an education because of a completely normal biological process which they had no control over. While absence from school was the driving force behind the anger it quickly moved in equal measure to looking at the situation others found themselves in. It felt barbaric to me that others were resorting to makeshift 'protection': socks, toilet paper, t-shirts, even newspaper. Imagining the feelings of anxiety, embarrassment and hyper self-awareness, leading to stress and a severe lack of self-confidence, every single month was an image that would not leave my mind and still doesn't.
What kind of work does the project do?
The Red Box Project is run entirely by volunteers and relies completely on the kindness of others. A volunteer coordinator sets up their project to run in their local community. They work hard to raise awareness, fundraise and set up donation drop off points in a huge number of different types of locations. The public then donate and these generous donations are then used to stock the red boxes that go into educational settings or youth clubs in their area. Donations of period products, tights and underwear are all included in the boxes we deliver.
Can you give a sense of scale for this issue?
The need grows every day. Currently, The Red Box Project has over 260 projects running nationwide with over 3,850 active red boxes placed in a variety of educational settings. We have additional projects running overseas in Tanzania, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Isle of Man, Jersey, Ireland and Poland. We receive a rising number of enquires directly from schools and colleges who have identified that their students are missing out on their education because of a lack of access to basic necessities and so welcome our initiative to support them.
Why is this such an important issue?
I believe that in order to build a strong society we first have to start by addressing the needs and aspirations of our children. Our next generation of artists, mathematicians, politicians, scientists, dancers, engineers, environmentalists, activists are those children who might contend with issues that prevent them from accessing the education they deserve. Their education and access to it is a fundamental human right.
Menstruation is a normal biological process that simply cannot be a factor that leads to limiting their full potential and participation in every aspect that a full education brings. It is not just the effect on their education that I deem to be unjust but the knock-on effects that this can have later in life, and which we know, from talking to women who email us regularly exists; social isolation, low self-esteem, long term mental health problems, social isolation.
The project, at its heart, tries to alleviate these negative effects and to give young people back ownership and control over their bodies when they menstruate. We do this in a non-intrusive way by simply delivering the products and giving all students free and universal access to them whenever they need them.
Why has period poverty been neglected? How big a factor is shame?
The stigma attached to menstruation has existed since time began. Women have talked to us, wishing to support the work we do because of the same experiences they went through as a young person growing up. They saw how hard their parent/s worked but hat money did not always stretch to purchase the basic essentials they needed. Often, they felt that in hindsight they wished they had talked about it more because so many of their peers were going through the same thing but did not feel about to open up to anyone.
Fast forward to now and the same issues exist. There are also, of course, important issues around equality. Periods are deemed a luxury and the taxes placed on these products reflect that. Now more than ever people are standing up to say that this is not acceptable and nor is it acceptable that those who menstruate should be prevented from feeling that they are in control of their own bodies.
The shame comes from a lack of control over what is essentially a normal process but is made to feel otherwise when the products needed are not readily available to them. The question they internalize but nearly never ask is, ‘Why can't I access the same resources that others seem to be able to so readily?’ The fight for menstrual equity is on!
What have been the big challenges along the way?
The Red Box Project and the size in which we are running as a voluntary run initiative is a reminder of two things. One, people really do care. Two, the need is more prevalent than we could have ever imagined and it shocks us every day.
One of the major challenges of the work we do is dealing with comments from some of the general public that suggest that period poverty is a myth. They question how young people don’t have £1 to buy store brand products, for example. I struggle with the lack of empathy and understanding targeted towards children and the refusal to see things from other perspectives.
We know that child poverty has risen and continues to rise. We also know that family setups can often be complex and chaotic. Everybody's periods are different. You cannot assume that the level of protection provided by store-branded pads is going to be enough to help those who have heavy periods and we also know that for those young people in remote areas of the country it would require often a long journey to visit a large superstore.
It is not for us a society to judge children or anyone else for that matter. Period poverty is just one of a plethora of factors associated with poverty coupled with issues around stigmas associated with menstruation and equality more generally.
What have been your most notable successes?
Every single box that is delivered to an educational setting is a success because we know that for those pupils accessing the products they have one less thing to worry about and the products are there to see them through that moment as well in to the future. We encourage students to take whatever they need.
Personally, the volunteer coordinators have inspired and motivated me to do the best I can for the project every single day. It is really important that activism and being an activist doesn’t allude itself to being only suitable for certain people with certain attributes and abilities. All of us have the ability to make real and effective long-standing change.
What other organisations are helping to bring about change?
We are fortunate that we have strength in numbers. A great many people are fighting for menstrual equity across the country. Homeless Period Ireland, On the Ball, Amika George and the #FreePeriods Movement, Freedom for Girls, Laura Coryton, Bloody Good Period, The Pink Protest, Bloody Big Brunch, to name just a few.
Do you think wider awareness of the issue is growing among policymakers, institutions and wider society?
It is has been incredible to see firstly Scotland commit to providing free menstrual products to all schools, colleges and universities. Wales followed and will be providing the same scheme to their students in schools and colleges and we are ecstatic that in the government’s most recent Spring Statement, Philip Hammond announced a proposed scheme to fund period products to cover all secondary schools as well as colleges which after further campaigning led the government to committing this support to primary schools too, across England. This is set to be actioned in spring next year. Whilst I can see the argument that this is not enough, it is a massive step forward which has to be viewed as positive and has occurred because of the hard work of many individuals and groups across the country who have never stopped fighting for our young people and their right to an education and to dignity.
What is the ultimate goal of the project?
We have been fighting for change from day one to see our support provided centrally by government. We want to step back knowing that all young people, in education, have free and universal access to period products so that they can continue actively participating in their education without this additional barrier being placed unfairly in their way; blocking their true potential. Ideally, this commitment by government to tackle period poverty will become entrenched in law so that we see a permanent investment made by them to our young people, no matter who or what parties are in power.
Our next fight is for our friends in Northern Ireland. We know from the hard work of coordinators based there that a scheme funded by government is needed and we will continue to keep fighting for them. We will continue to support all of the other organisations fighting for menstrual equity and fight for equality, always.
Poverty is predicted to increase again by 2020 – how do we fight back?
We must never stop fighting for equality. One voice has the power to create a huge ripple effect in galvanizing other people in to action. One thing I have witnessed is that if the system won't change by itself then we make it change through our daily actions and contributions to society and we keep going regardless of how high the mountain is to climb.