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Londoners are generally a pretty hardened bunch. Once you’ve lived in the smoke long enough you’ve just about seen it all - naked bike rides, impromptu drag races, tap dancing preachers on the night bus, people chopping onions on the tube at 8am on the way to work
(yes, these things really happened).
So you might say city folk are pretty much shock-proof. Faced with weird, wacky - and sometimes downright stomach-wrenching - scenarios on a daily basis, we tend to adopt our default reaction: stare straight ahead, stony eyed - or just carry on reading your Evening Standard.
But passing through the Southbank last Friday night, even the most unshakeable of Londoners would have done a double-take.
From the river right up to the doors of Waterloo station, lampposts, bus shelters, walls and traffic lights were plastered with sanitary pads. If you dared to draw closer to the items in question, you’d see the hashtag #SmashShame written across them in red ink.
No - this wasn’t a paltry PR stunt or an inane Banksy-inspired act of vandalism. It was one charity’s bold attempt to tackle taboos surrounding periods - the kind of taboos that are still holding back women around the world in the twenty first century.
The #SmashShame campaign was engineered by Binti, a social enterprise set up in 2014 to provide vulnerable women across the globe with menstrual dignity through education and access to reusable sanitary products.
As part of the campaign, an army of volunteers, covered head to toe in pads and bloodied (red-inked) tampons, marched through the streets of central London, chanting “Smash Shame Now” and asking members of the public about periods. The vox pop survey included questions like “What is a period?” and - to men - “Have you ever touched a pad?”
#SmashShame coincided with Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May - a global platform established to help woman and girls across the globe manage their menstruation in a safeand hygienic way. #MHM2017
Periods have been gaining more momentum in the press over the past few years thanks to the work of organisations like Binti.
In March, reports that schoolgirls in Leeds were using socks and sellotaping toilet rolls to their underwear during their periods as they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary items sparked a nationwide campaign to provide schools with free sanitary products for girls from low-income backgrounds.
The issue has also penetrated the general election campaign with the Greens and Liberal Democrats manifestos pledging in to end period poverty in Britain.
I spoke with Binti CEO Manjit Gill about the campaign’s aim.
#SmashShame was about creating a shock factor and highlighting that, even in 21st century Britain, people are still uneasy when it comes to talking about periods - that means both men and women.”
Binti has long been fighting to smash the crippling cultural stigma that surrounds menstruation in the UK and much of the developing world (particularly in India and across Africa) where periods themselves are considered dirty, evil and impure, meaning menstruating women are prevented from taking part in everyday activities and forced to use dirty rags and other unsanitary items to stem bleeding.
Besides being horrifically degrading, this is linked to a high rate of cervical diseases in many developing countries, and also has a negative impact on the economy: The United Nations estimates that one in ten African girls skips school during menstruation, with many others dropping out entirely due to a lack of access to sanitary products.
Binti is also involved in a number of UK-based initiatives to provide homeless and vulnerable women with urgently-needed sanitary products, and is campaigning to put menstrual education on the national curriculum. Because even in a wealthy country like the UK, where women have ready access to a plethora of period-related items (including apps that track our periods), there’s still a deafening silence around the subject, with most people unwilling, or even unable, to speak about periods.
“Periods are a biological process that half of the world population experiences, and yet we still feel queasy talking about them”, Manjit told me. “It’s only through generating conversation around periods - normalising them - that we can begin to smash shame around periods and end period poverty across the globe, including here in the UK, for good.”
Watch the Binti team smashing shame in action here.