I was recently invited to speak at Seeing Red, which was organised as part of the Being Human Festival, at the University of Essex. It was an event to bring together “campaigners and academics to explore how historical representations of menstruation inform contemporary concerns about period poverty” and I was initially invited to speak because of the work I did with Bloody Disgrace but in all honesty, I felt fraudulent and unqualified to speak about period poverty and activism. I explained my reservations to Dr Kate Mahoney, the organiser, and she said that she was still keen for me to speak about the work I do with the Mighty Girls and my teaching practice.
Fighting every impulse to give into my imposter syndrome, I went for it and decided to talk about how intersectional feminism shapes my teaching practice and how important it is to empower children to stand up and speak out. After all, aren’t these children the activists of the future?
So, on Thursday last week, I left my comfort zone and travelled to Colchester to give a 12 minute talk and participate in a panel discussion alongside Dr Tracey Loughran, a historian of women’s health at the University of Essex and Chella Quint, a leading expert on menstruation education who also happens to be bloody hilarious and in possession of an incredible array of menstrual props including an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret period belt.
Below is the transcript of my talk.
42% of 7-9 year old girls want to lose weight.
Up to 40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
46% of 9-11 year olds are sometime or often on a diet.
Between the ages of 8-14, girls’ confidence drops by 30%.
1 in 8 girls said they first experienced unwanted sexual attention or contact in a public place when they were 12 or younger.
More than a third of adolescent girls in the UK have been sexually harassed out in public while wearing their school uniforms.
30% of girls would consider cosmetic procedures.
1 third of girls skip meals to help them lose weight.
This year’s Girl Guiding survey asked girls aged 13 to 21 whether it was acceptable for a partner to threaten them with violence because they spend too much time with their friends. 91% said is was unacceptable which is down 5% from 96% in 2012.
90% of young women asked said it was unacceptable for a partner to hit, kick or punch them for talking to someone else at a party. In 2012, it was 96%
89% of young women think it is unacceptable to be pressured to have sex. Six years ago, that number was 95%
In 2012, 75% of young women thought it was unacceptable for a partner to check up on them, read their messages and check their phone. Now, only 64% of young women think this is unacceptable.
1 quarter of 14-year-old girls in the UK have self-harmed and these figures rise to 46% of children who are attracted to the same or both sexes.
And we ask ourselves over and over again, wringing our hands while wearing our Girl Power t-shirts, why does girls’ self-esteem peaks at nine years old?
Children of Black, Asian and minority ethnicity, for whom I will use the acronym BAME, are less likely than white children to access mental health services.
As an aside, I understand BAME and/or person of colour are not always the preferred terms but I do not wish to use the othering term ‘non-white.’
26% of all child arrests are children of colour —more than double the percentage of BAME people in the population as a whole.
In London, 60% of all child arrests were children of colour — The capital has a community of colour of 40%
Only 1% of British children’s books published in 2017 feature a main character who is BAME
Young carers are 1.5 times more likely to be from communities of colour.
Two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are in working households.
London has the highest rate of child poverty of any English region.
37% of children living in London are below the poverty line.
In Tower Hamlets, where I work, 43.5% of children live in relative poverty.
So, it’s not so hard to understand why children and young people who sit at the intersections of the oppressions of race, class and gender might feel excluded from the current political and social narrative. It’s not hard to see why these young people feel that their voices do not count. That they are not being listened to.
And what is the point in speaking up if no one is going to listen to you?
I am a primary school teacher in Tower Hamlets East London, where these intersections of race and class collide. Nearly 90% of our kids are Bangladeshi, our pupil premimum number is much larger than the national average and a much higher than average number of our children have special educational needs or a disabilty.
My children do not want your sympathy. What they need and want, like all of us, is to change the world.
In a world that continually marginalises their race, their religion, their class and for over half of them, their sex, how do we, as educators show them the power of their voices? How do we teach children to believe in the power of their voices?
These children are going through a heteronormative, patriarchal education system that regularly and violently whitewashes history so that there is little to no opportunity for them to see themelves in positions of changemakers and not lawbreakers.
I am sure that those of us here who were at the Women’s March last January noticed the distinct whiteness of the attendees, myself included. Not long after that march, I found myself outside Downing St protesting Trump’s Muslim ban. This time, the crowd was only the tiniest bit more diverse and I know for a fact that it was not because British Muslims and people of colour did not feel the same disgust and despair. In fact, they were probably feeling it so much stronger and deeper and were in far more pain that I ever would be.
We need to be asking questions about how accessible activism and protest is to everyone, not just those of us who already have something of a platform.
I do not believe that activists are born. They are products of education and empathy. And that is what I am trying to do in my role as an educator. To educate and encourage empathy.
I have been called irresponsible, unethical and accused of brainwashing children because I teach nine year olds about sexism, toxic masculinty, institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia and classism and for celebrating marginalised voices in my classroom and discussing lgbt+ awareness openly with the children. I need to point out that these accusations have come directly from white, middle-class people and not the families of my children with whom I have a wonderful relationship and their full support.
Children already know so much and if we do not give them the space to ask questions and learn, they will eventually stop asking questions, stop empathising and stop fighting.
So when a ten year old asked me why it took so long to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice, I told them the truth. When the children asked me why Grenfell happened and why the newspapers think that they and their families are terrorists, I told them the truth. When children asked me why 130 million girls are not in school, I told them the truth.
Trust me, ten year olds are capable of getting very, very angry about these things. And I tell them to hold onto that anger because they know what is causing it and those things can be changed.
I tell them about activists who changed the world, activists not much older than them when they stood up and spoke out. I tell them about the power of voting and the blood shed to gain that vote. I tell them that no adult is infallible and to question authority as so many of them will face the indiginity of racial profiling in their future. I tell them about the power of protest, both peaceful and militant. It’s easy to teach kids about the Black Panthers when you start with a Beyonce video.
As a year 5 teacher, I have the honour of teaching these children about menstruation for the first time. The excitement, the joy, the horror, the anxiety- and so, so many questions! Children are starting their periods much younger now so I am teaching them about not just what is going to happen to their bodies but, in some case, what is already happening.
I teach an incredibly stifling sex education curriculum without images or models so I use a lot of hand gentures and pointing. I am sometimes working with children who have been menstruating for some time but have been told by their mothers that they’ll tell them about it when they’re 13. In another 3 years.
These children, thanks to an education system that is reverting further and further back into the dark ages, have no idea what is happening to their bodies. I have had to explain at length why we should not sellotape or glue toilet paper into our knickers when we are bleeding and that as a trusted adult in their lives, to always come to me for menstrual products. Period poverty is not the only risk facing many young menstruators but period ignorance. We are failing them.
Last year, I started a female empowerment club for 9-11 year old students at my school who identify as girls. We are called the Mighty Girls. All of them are BAME and most of them are Muslim.
In the past year, we have learnt about food banks and organised a food drive, learnt and performed Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, made affirmation mirrors, bracelets and worry dolls, raised money for Malala Fund and learnt about barriers to girls’ education throughout the world, drawn self portraits inspired by Frida Kahlo, discovered just how amazing our bodies are, made protest signs and attended Processions, a huge event to celebrate one hundred years since the first women got the vote. We’ve also danced on tables to Beyonce. A lot. Sometimes, I just ask the girls whether they’ve ever been treated differently for being a girl and sit back and let them go for it. They have A LOT to say about this.
Our motto is ‘lifting others as we grow’ and my aim is to help them build strong bonds of sisterhood and encourage them to speak out on issues that directly impact them but also others in their roles as global citizens with a voice.
One of the proudest moments of my life was when I attended the Processions event in London this summer with 15 Mighty Girls. They had all made banners and flags with their own slogans on. ‘The past was men, the future is women’, ‘Girls have potential’ ‘Girls can do anything’ and my favourite, ‘we are brave, we are bold, we are the Mighty Girls’ which then became one of the day’s chants. They were pretty overwhelmed at the start of the march, surrounded by tens of thousands of women but by the time we reached Parliament, they had the crowd chanting along with them: ‘We are women, we are proud, we are equal, say it loud.’
That day, they learned the power of their voices. They learnt that if they speak, we will listen and if they lead, we will follow.
My biggest hope for these fearless girls is that they remember this as they go off into a world that will try to rob them of this voice. A world that does not trust nor believe women when they use their voice. A world that will do it’s very hardest to silence them.
I will never be able to change how this world treats these girls, how their own communities and even families treat them. So how do we teach them to keep fighting for themselves and others?
We make sure that we are listening. We make sure that we are making space in our spaces for them. We step aside and amplify marginalised voices. We make sure that we are not speaking for them as they can speak for themselves.
As educators, we do not need to teach children how to speak or think; they already have voices and minds. We need to teach them how to roar.