Young Australian of the Year Isobel Marshall and long-time friend Eloise Hall have achieved in four short years what most don’t achieve in a lifetime. And their quest to change the world has only just begun.
When a young Isobel Marshall first met Eloise Hall as a Year 7 at Walford Girls School they could never have dreamt up the journey that would follow. It was here that they learnt the importance of community service (“every year we were encouraged to engage and lead service activities,” says Isobel); they were also introduced to strong female role models who would encourage them to take part in challenging leadership activities. It was after an inspiring Women in Leadership conference at Bond University, attended while they were both captains at the prestigious school, that they were introduced to the concept of social enterprise by one of the event’s key speakers, Thank You water’s Daniel Flynn. The idea that a business could function normally, but with all of the profits going to a cause rather than to shareholders, was something that held their attention. This was the beginning.
With a keen interest in reproductive healthcare and a new-found understanding of this concept of ‘social enterprise’, marrying the two together seemed the next logical step. From there they decided to address the worldwide problem of period poverty, making their own pads and donating 100 percent of the profit to the communities that need it most. All of this by the ages of just 17 and 18. I sat down with them both at Isobel’s family home to chat about the journey so far.
First of all, congratulations Isobel on the Young Australian of the Year award!
Isobel: Thank you! It’s still sinking in! I think the most encouraging part is that a group of people who have incredible influence in Australia decided that period poverty is a conversation that needs to have a national platform. The platform has proved to be very useful already – lots of orders have come through, lots of opportunities, lots of collaborations! The media in itself is starting the conversation and it means that people that perhaps wouldn’t have normally had those conversations are forced to listen to them in their living room! It has been incredible.
The stats surrounding period poverty are staggering, with something like 30-40 percent of girls in some developing countries not finishing school because they don’t have access to menstrual healthcare. Tell me about that.
Eloise: Exactly, and it’s heartbreaking. So many girls are not able to complete their education once they start their period due to a lack of product or a lack of access to menstrual healthcare, and there was such a simple solution. Australians spend about $300 million on pads and tampons each year, it’s a lot of money. We saw an opportunity to make some financial contribution to bettering the lives of these girls – so we thought, we need to make own product and put the profit back into what’s needed.
Isobel: And the beauty of the model is that we’re not asking the Australian customer to do anything they wouldn’t normally do or buy anything that they wouldn’t otherwise have to buy.
Your product is called TABOO, which hints at the stigma that surrounds talking about menstruation. Can you tell me a bit about the role of ‘menstrual stigma’?
Isobel: Yes, menstrual stigma – the taboo – has a massive impact on these girls not going to school because they fear bleeding onto their dress. Even here in Australia women feel like they can’t tell their boss they have endometriosis or that they’re away from work because they’ve got their period.
Eloise: And it’s funny how ingrained it is. It’s something we’ve been taught to conceal from such a young age and it’s never something anyone’s comfortable talking to you about when you’re a kid. And when we then learn that the stigma is the driving force behind period poverty then all of a sudden it is something that does need to be addressed and we do need to open up that conversation.
You have set up a social media campaign, #tagyourtaboo, to try and address these problems. How successful has that been?
Eloise: We’ve definitely noticed some people have been uncomfortable to join the campaign. We had a lot of people show their interest and then not actually follow through and we had a lot of friends say, ‘nice idea’ and then not do much, so I think there is still a lot of personal courage that people are mustering up to be a part of the campaign. It is quite against the grain in terms of norms – no one normally shares to their social media following that they’re bleeding and that’s what we’ve asked people to do. The people that have – Rebecca Morse for example, joined the campaign recently and she has had the most incredible impact. There have been a few comments, as there always is, saying why are you doing this? What’s this all about?
Those people who question why you are doing this are actually helping the conversation though, right?
Eloise: Yes, they’re the people we’re trying to target in that campaign. It’s opened up such a great platform for people to explain why breaking the stigma is so important.
Period poverty is clearly an issue is developing countries, but what about disadvantaged communities here in Australia?
Eloise: Period poverty is a problem in Australia as well. It’s kind of surprising when you consider how much wealth we have and how much support we have from government but still so many girls don’t have access to proper product. Even in wealthy parts of Adelaide it’s a problem because of the stigma. Then there’s rural or remote communities that just don’t have access because of the lack of product available in shops; in these areas it’s common for things such as Chux to be used instead and other materials that are absorbent, but they just aren’t dignified and they don’t work as well as they need to.
In Scotland they’ve recently made sanitary products free. Should our government be doing more?
Isobel: That’s a great question. I guess you can liken pads to toilet paper, it’s a product a large part of the population needs and there should be support from the government, whether it be subsidised product or just access to product.
Eloise: Victoria has been quite progressive in establishing a public system where pads are provided, so that’s really hopeful and the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly, is quite excited to have a similar initiative in place through schools in South Australia. Helen’s really advocating for the school systems to make pads accessible via a dispensing system.
You have also recently launched another unique marketing push – this time directed toward employers. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Isobel: Yes, we’re challenging employers to consider stocking TABOO product for their employees. We’d love to challenge people of do this, even before there’s laws around it, because it’s the right thing to do and also just to be on the front-foot and open the conversation up with their employees. It’s also a great way to support your female employees. SkyCity have shown interest, Flinders Uni are going to get on board too, the National Wine Centre and we recently pitched it to a whole bunch of CEOs at a conference.
We actually already do that here!
Isobel: Really? That’s great! How good would it be if all major South Australian businesses got on board?
The journey has obviously been amazing so far, so what happens next?
Eloise: The next chapter for us involves an exciting new retail partnership. The end goal is for us to be present everywhere people buy their product.