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Real Voices: Fighting period poverty in the UK and abroad

Zareen Roohi Ahmed is the founder of the Gift Wellness Foundation, which supports women in crisis by providing period products. In this week’s Real Voices, she describes her journey from personal tragedy to setting up the charity, and how period poverty affects women all over the world.

The inspiration behind Gift Wellness was my daughter Halimah. She passed away 15 years ago during her first term at Nottingham Trent University. She shared my passion for charity and philanthropy, and we had had a pact together that once she graduated university we would set up a social enterprise together. Even as a child Halimah would fundraise for charities by baking cakes and selling them at school. Halimah had just begun her dream degree course in International Relations & Third World Development at Nottingham Trent, when, tragically, she was abducted and murdered.

Even in the haze of grief and shock after she died, I knew what I needed to do. I had to keep the promise to Halimah. My husband and my son and I set up The Halimah Trust to do the work that she had wanted to do. Our slogan is ‘Keeping dreams alive’. Our flagship project was to build a school for orphaned and needy girls in Pakistan, in a very poor region in Punjab. The girls here had to start work or were married off at a very young age. This was also the year after a huge earthquake in the Kashmir region, so there were many orphans in the area. I was a CEO of a national organisation when Halimah passed away, and I dropped everything and quit my job to focus on the foundation. We inaugurated the girls’ school in 2011, and there’s now a college there as well with 1600 girls enrolled.

On my way back from opening the school in 2011, I was sitting in the departures lounge in the airport in Lahore, reflecting on the milestone we’d reached and how healing it had been in my grief, in keeping me connected to Halimah. I was thinking to myself “What next?”. I knew I would never work for anyone again, and that what I did next had to keep that connection with Halimah. I picked up a magazine and opened it to an article about women in refugee camps, who were having to tear strips off their clothes to roll up as makeshift sanitary pads. They had no access to essential sanitary products. It hit me like a train, and I could see myself giving pads to these women. I knew that this would be my next project there and then.

I began to research period poverty and I found that it isn’t just women in refugee camps in far-off countries that lack access to sanitary products, it also affects women in this country. Right now there are more food banks in the UK than McDonald’s, and the need is growing every day. It woke me up to the reality that even though we are one of the richest countries in the world, there are women who can’t access or afford these items which are essential in order to function. The other thing I found out was how toxic these products are to our bodies, and how they can actually make us feel worse on our periods. That’s why I developed my own brand, called Gift, of non-toxic sanitary products. I wanted to proactively improve the experience that women have during their periods. In our pads, we insert an element under the top layer of the pad which is made of tourmaline. Tourmaline is anti-bacterial, and helps circulation and hormone balance. It just makes you feel a bit better whilst on your period.

Our first stock of pads arrived in 2013, and the first thing I did was to contact a charity who were sending a shipment of essentials, coincidentally to the same refugee camp that I’d read about in that magazine in the airport in Lahore. As soon as I mentioned that I wanted to donate sanitary pads to be taken to the camp, the guy on the phone said “Ah sister, I’m afraid our truck is already full of highly essential items such as food and clothing, maybe we can take your sanitary items next time.” He obviously didn’t realise that sanitary items are utterly essential to women. I went down to the collection centre to see him. I explained that no matter what happens to these women, and how bad things get for them, they’re still going to get their periods every month. At first he was shocked that I’d mentioned periods, but I asked him to imagine that those women were his sister, or mother, or wife, or daughter. He began to cry. He said “ I can’t believe that we’ve missed such an important element of aid.” Suffice to say, he sent a big truck of our products straight to the camp.

The issue is, I have to have that same conversation with every charity I speak to. Even with another charity that I went to Lebanon with in August, and helped to facilitate the distribution of items amongst women in this vast refugee camp, the charity saw it as a one-off special project. They all use the term “feminine hygiene items” as a way of avoiding having to say “period” or “menstruation”. There’s such a stigma and lack of knowledge around menstruation in every culture, that we have to overcome. There’s a lot of work to do.

The level of demand for the products is going up in this country currently, due to the cost of living crisis. It was when I was in Lebanon that I had the idea to try and address this in a more efficient way, because we were inundated and overwhelmed by the level of need. We needed to find a better and more eco-friendly way of meeting the demand. Groups (such as schools or companies) would collect period products and send them to me so that I could distribute them to the needy. We were also being contacted by organisations who were asking for the products, and finally we were in contact with the people suffering who directly needed sanitary items. I needed to simplify the communication and processes between all these groups. I came up with the idea for an app, Period Angels. If you’re an organisation (such as a charity or food bank), you can create an account and state what items you have, and what you need. You then pop up on a map of your local area. If you’re a group collecting products for donation, you can create a profile and see what local organisations exist and what they need exactly. If you’re someone who personally needs the products, you just go on the app and see where you can collect period products near you. It simplifies the process, and cuts down on CO2 emissions as there’s not as much need for transport. It will also build relationships between people, and raise awareness locally about this issue.

In the meantime, customers of Gift Wellness know that every time they purchase a product, they’re helping women in crisis. I’m also writing a book called “The Gift” which is the story of my journey from tragedy to creating this beautiful project that I’m so proud of. I hope to carry on growing the project and continuing to help women in crisis, whether they’re in refugee camps abroad or right on our doorstep.

Gift donates sanitary pads to women in crisis with each purchase of their products. Readers of The Rooftop can get 20% off at Gift by using the code: Rooftop20