Irise Art for Action Auction

Irise International, a charity focused on demanding period equality for people with periods in both East Africa and the UK, are holding an online art auction to raise money and awareness for their cause. The charity is doing crucial work and we spoke to some of its key members to find out more about period poverty, the challenges ahead with corona and of course, the auction.

Irise International, a charity focused on demanding period equality for people with periods in both East Africa and the UK, are holding an online art auction to raise money and awareness for their cause. The charity is doing crucial work and we spoke to some of its key members to find out more about period poverty, the challenges ahead with corona and of course, the auction.

Tell us a bit about the work Irise does in both East Africa and in the UK? 

Acushla- Irise International is a charity organisation that empowers young people to reach their full potential, unlimited by their periods. We support young people and their communities in the UK and East Africa to overcome period related barriers, such as those born from stigma and lack of product provisions, through delivering practical programmes, undertaking innovative research and advocating for policy and practice change. We believe that when we are led by young women and informed by robust evidence, long lasting social change can be achieved.

The charity places great emphasis on creating ‘menstruation friendly environments’, how do you go about encouraging this attitude and what effect does it have on a community? 

Acushla – Menstruation friendly environments are created by tackling ‘the toxic trio’; 1. limited access to products and gender sensitive facilities, 2. lack of information about periods and menstrual health, 3. stigma and discrimination. We aim to tackle this through grassroots, community led intervention, led by people with periods, alongside government level support and policy change. Empowering people with periods to lead this change is key to creating menstruation friendly environments, as this ensures communities and governments listen and respond to the voices of those who have experienced disadvantage because of their periods. The effects on the community are truly transformative and a key step towards achieving gender equity. Menstruation friendly environments restore choice, agency and control to those with periods, allowing them to manage their periods and live their lives however they choose.

Why do you think there is shame attached to periods, both here in the UK and in East Africa? 

Carley I think that the shame attached to periods is derived from generations of womxn being viewed as “second class citizens”. Female health was and is not taken seriously, as Gloria Steinem states, “What would happen… if suddenly…men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event”. It is a characteristic of those considered “powerless”, and feeds into the narrative to keep them so. 

Why do you think period poverty is a neglected discussion worldwide? 

Carley – The generations of shame have fed a global stigma surrounding menstruation on every level – within healthcare, government and society. Menstruation has not been considered a serious issue, an attitude which has become internalised by people who menstruate – creating a barrier for open discussion. This has been compounded by the fact that many decision makers do not have first-hand experience of menstruation, or if they do, their experience is not representative of all people with periods. This creates a vicious cycle of silence – which is now being broken by people all over the world, from all walks of life starting to share their experiences.

What changes have you observed in young girls when they are informed on periods?

Acushla -Through dismantling period stigma and ensuring that girls have the information and tools they need to menstruate with dignity, girls reclaim menstruation as an empowering experience, rather than one of shame. This leads to an increase in confidence and self-esteem, allowing for young girls to realise their full potential and live the lives they choose. This can further encourage young girls to become advocates for period empowerment, sharing their knowledge and newly found body confidence with other people with periods, creating a cascade effect of period positivity. These changes are a shared experience across the continents in which we work; although our cultures and ways of life may differ, we all experience period stigma that has been embedded into our societies over hundreds of years. 

What steps do your white volunteers take when working in East Africa to avoid falling into stereotypes of the ‘white saviour’ and approach structural hierarchies when helping the women and girls you support?

Emily – Dialogue and partnership between people from different cultures and walks of life is an essential part of achieving global period equality. At Irise, our UK and East Africa teams and our global network continually learn from each other and enhance each other’s work towards our shared goal. Period shame is shared across cultural and social divides and the realisation of period equality can also be a shared fight, bringing together everyone who wants to build an inclusive global system where diversity of experience is celebrated. Our East African staff and volunteers work in partnership with their counterparts in the UK to make sure that when we are visiting or informing each other’s work we are led by those who have an in-depth understanding of the local context.

What effect is coronavirus having on your work?

Emily – Period inequality (limited opportunity and potential because of periods) is a manifestation of systematic biases that mean the needs of young women, girls and other marginalised groups are overlooked and their voices unheard. During the crisis these power imbalances are being accentuated and the disempowerment that drives period inequality is worsening. We are seeing escalating harm across our pathways to empowerment including increased vulnerability to physical, sexual and emotional violence as lockdown creates a pressure cooker for the harmful beliefs that underpin the shame and stigma surrounding periods and broader discrimination against women. Our community has decided we must act quickly to support the most vulnerable people we serve. Our response has 3 strands: ensuring provision, providing protection and restoring power. Our key activities involve working with local government and partners to distribute emergency, tailored relief packages and working with our advocacy network to ensure a cross-sector, gender sensitive response, aiming to prevent a women’s rights crisis. 

Tell us about the art auction you are running to raise money? 

Carley – Irise Art for Action is a fundraising initiative I am leading to support Irise’s emergency coronavirus response – just £5 will fund an emergency response package for a vulnerable woman or girl in Uganda, and £10 in the UK. We are raffling artwork from artists who use their work to explore and challenge the stigma around menstruation, the representation of culture and self-identity, human rights, and the perception and struggles associated with being a woman. The idea is to empower people through  sharing these thought provoking narratives about individual relationships with social and cultural ideas, whilst simultaneously transforming this into tangible action raising funds to support vulnerable people with periods. 

How do you envisage period poverty in a post corona world? Will the public be more sensitive and receptive to the issue? 

Carley – I fear that the post corona world will consist of governments and individuals desperately trying to relieve the economic burden from corona, which will ultimately result in neglect for those vulnerable to period poverty. As states attempt to increase economic gain, there will be a lack of consideration for the impact, and too many people focused on their own struggles to acknowledge this disregard. However, the virus’s disproportionate impact on women has shone a light on gender specific issues, which will encourage more vulnerable people with periods to speak up, seek help, and share their story. Charities like Irise will continue to ensure that these voices are heard and their needs are met, which ultimately empowers women and other marginalised groups to take control and build a better system for everybody. 

A big thank you to Irise for their crucial work, you can find the link to the auction here.