Listen up ladies. It’s 2018 and we’re too darned intelligent, savvy and sensible to be squirming in our skinny jeans every time the topic of menstruation comes up.

What’s more – we need this dialogue more than ever. Here at Eloquently Her, we’re horrified to learn the extent of period poverty right here in the so-called ‘modern Western world’. Here’s our chat with the founder of Hey Girls, a social enterprise doing all it can to reduce both stigma and sacrifice.

When was the last time you stuffed a pair of socks in your knickers because you couldn’t afford sanitary products?

Did you spend your school years having to smuggle newspaper or reams of toilet paper as a makeshift option when that unwelcome menstrual visitor arrived each month?

If the mere thought of having to go to such incredible lengths is leaving you cold with horror, or genuinely baffled that anyone would face such a grim reality, then – good for you, my friend.

But, as shocking as it might sound in an age of lavish tech and 24-7 retail for every product under the sun, the current-day menstruation-induced struggle is all too real for many.

“So many women out there are choosing whether to buy a meal, or whether to get sanitary protection for themselves. It’s a reality.”

The term ‘period poverty’ has been used to capture the issue of girls and women being unable to appropriately manage their menstruation days with specific products, perhaps because of short or long term financial difficulties.

As much as we might think this is a problem faced in more third world countries, a recent survey by Plan International UK found close to 50% of UK girls had had to find makeshift alternatives during their period, specifically as a result of affordability.

It was this bleak picture, and a throw-away kitchen-table conversation for one seasoned social enterprise expert – who, by the way, was meant to be starting her retired life on an allotment in the rural idyll of Scotland at this stage – which led to the creation of one of the UK’s newest and most dynamic social enterprises.
Hey Girls is the creation of Celia Hodson, a vivacious, captivating, and incredibly ambitious 60-something year old grandmother who has found that life is ‘far too exciting and full of opportunity’ to possibly consider taking a back seat.

“Yes, that’s true, I certainly was meant to be retired and attending the local horticultural society by now,” she says, laughing.

“I did join the club when I moved to Scotland, but things got on the way. Does that count?”.

Celia is no stranger to charity, causes and campaigns.

She actually hails from a background in social entrepreneurship, leading university-housed programmes, growing enterprise academies, and having hugely impressive roles in Sydney, Australia, and then in India – all accelerating the ambitions of social entrepreneurs.

But it’s ‘period poverty’ which has really become ‘her thing’.

“I was having a conversation with my adult daughters about the problem and the UK, and saying how incredible it was to think that one in 10 girls in the country couldn’t afford proper sanitary products.

“Seriously – can you believe that?,” she queries, emphasising the shocking stat’.

“It made me cross and committed in equal measure. I started thinking about ‘what could we do’.

“There were plenty of people out there campaigning and talking about the fact that in the days of food-banks being more widely acknowledged, there were now lots of women and girls going without sanitary towels and tampons…but I still didn’t feel anything ‘real’ was being done to address it.”

Having at the time just moved to a converted pig sty in Scotland, and not long finished in her professional social entrepreneurship roles – first in Suffolk in the UK, then Sydney, then Brazil – she quickly reached the conclusion that retirement really wasn’t going to be an option just yet.

“In the summer of 2017, my early stage investigation got me to realising that the best route to tackling this issue would be to develop a ‘buy one give one’ approach,” she continues.

“I decided to create a CIC, and set about reaching out to all my contacts on social media, and then hosting informal consultation sessions in pizza restaurants wherever I had connections.

“I wanted to get people to come along, talk about the issue, and, most importantly, start playing with various menstrual products so that I could understand what they thought was good and bad about all of the ones currently on the market.

“My plan was that we would create our own Hey Girls products which would be manufactured specifically with the ‘buy one give one’ concept in place from the outset.”

Cue several months of raucous restaurant-based opinion-canvassing.

Men and women responded in their hundreds to Celia’s social media pleas, and came along to prod and pick-over every available product.

While it proved great for conceptual development ideas around the physical ‘goods’ themselves, it also validated Celia’s core belief – that people really DID care about this issue, that they DID want to help, and that in many cases, they TOO, had faced such hardship.

“I think it’s very easy in our world of devices, throwaway fashion, impressive cars, lots of technology and constant messaging around indulgent lifestyles, that we assume everyone can afford something like sanitary products here in the UK,” she says softly.

“But the facts say that the issue is something like one in 10 not affording products in the South of the UK, one in seven in London, and then one in five by the time you get to Scotland.

“Things are tough for a great many families right now. We’re used to seeing things about food-banks, but it’s more taboo to talk about periods at the best of times.

“So many women out there are choosing whether to buy a meal, or whether to get sanitary protection for themselves. It’s a reality.”

And that’s a reality which Celia herself understands all too well.

“I want every woman to be able to have access to products, no matter what her circumstance”

Yes, she’s incredibly intelligent, accomplished and articulate.

But Celia Hodson also knows what it’s like to live on the other side of the road.

She knows the world of benefits, single-motherhood, deprivation and dire sacrifice.

“My world has had some pretty dark times, and I guess that’s how I know something about what that financial dilemma is like,” she admits, candidly.

“I got married incredibly young, very quickly found myself as a mother of three children, and, as time went on, entered a world of being a single parent, living off benefits, and constantly having to make ‘choices’ about which we would go without.

“So yes, I find myself driving the Hey Girls mission forward, and seeing it through the eyes of what the younger me experienced.

“I want every woman and girl to be able to have access to products, no matter what her circumstance.

“It’s going to take time, and lots and lots of knocking on doors and driving awareness, but I’m already impressed by the huge weight of support and the incredible backing we’ve seen from men and women everywhere.”

That support has included some much-needed funding streams, from a number of niche charitable grant-givers, but it’s also meant some pretty high profile wisdom and acknowledgment.

Hey Girls recently found itself being plucked as one of just a handful of enterprises to secure support from Virgin’s enterprise initiative.

“I never for one minute thought we’d get selected,” Celia admits, laughing.

“I entered as a bit of a ‘long shot’ and sent in a quick film made on my phone.

“Within weeks I found out we’d been selected, and then a short time later I found myself in a room being advised by an investment specialist, alongside a couple of other successful applicants.

“All of a sudden the door opened, and in breezed Richard Branson.”

She goes on: “He was charming, and very interested in what we were doing. It’s a moment like that when you’re forced to realise how much you’ve achieved already – and all because of a conversation about a social issue with my two girls.

“Oddly enough, my daughter only had one question about my time spent with Richard Branson.

“It was quite simply – ‘what did he smell like?’.”

Today, the Hey Girls mission may still be in its infancy, but it is gathering at phenomenal pace.

The team have selected a manufacturer they’re enjoying a great relationship with, and received their first haul of some 330,000 sanitary pads in the early part of this year.

Each of the products are contained within striking packaging, featuring ‘real women’ who became friends of the Hey Girls team and were captured on camera as part of an early-stage publicity shoot.

To add to the achievement, Hey Girls now has the likes of Waitrose and Asda agreeing to stock the items in a large number of their UK stores, and a contract has very recently been confirmed with FareShare (an organisation which distributes products and food to frontline charities).

“It’s just been such an incredible journey already, and I am completely overwhelmed by the support and kindness we’ve seen since embarking on our campaign,” Celia says.

“I’m acutely aware that this is such a big scale issue, and that we’re only now touching the sides of what is needed, but to be making strides so quickly is a real affirmation and it gives me huge satisfaction to see the amount people are now ‘having the conversation’.

“In an ideal world, we’d get to a point where, quite frankly, Hey Girls wouldn’t be needed.

“But it is needed, and I’m going to keep on doing what I can through our social enterprise, while at the same time continually writing to MPs and influencers and retailers to say ‘what are you doing about this?’.

“Every day I’m reminded that, any of us, no matter who we are, can make a difference.

“If you believe in something strongly enough; if it becomes all you’re thinking about day and night, then move to action. Make your idea or belief something which changes lives.”

To find out more about the work of Hey Girls, to support their campaign, or to find out where you can buy the charity’s products, go to www.heygirls.co.uk