Fighting menstrual TABOO one pad at a time

A year on from when we last spoke to the TABOO girls, On The Record contributor, Alyssa Cairo, takes a deeper look into Isobel Marshall’s life as a university student fighting period poverty. (Image source: TABOO)

 By Alyssa Cairo@alyssacairo_

In the melting pot of modern and traditional landscapes in the bustling city of Delhi, 19-year-old Isobel Marshall set-off on a trip halfway across the world with her best friend Eloise Hall. The pair wanted to better understand the different menstrual issues women face, as well as the different cultural stigmas surrounding menstruation. With the biggest barriers being the affordability of sanitary items and lack of education, period poverty is a vicious cycle. “Menstruation is one of the leading reasons why girls drop out of education,” Isobel said. So, instead of using pens at school, young girls are dodging through India’s motorised mayhem trying to sell pens for rupees.

Behind the colourful, cosmic swirl that is Delhi, Isobel is confronted with the reality that some cultures with strong stances on menstruation continue to banish women to secluded, and often unsafe, menstrual huts. In many parts of India menstruation is still considered to be dirty and impure. In a culture where a strong but ‘illegal’ caste system explicitly says women are worth less than cattle, menstrual huts ensure women do not come in contact with cattle during this time of menstrual ‘impurity’.

“Honestly, as much as it was an incredible experience and so valuable for us – it was really hard work,” Isobel said.

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Isobel Marshall, co-director of TABOO. (Image source: TABOO)

Sitting in front of her laptop dressed in a slouchy white t-shirt with her hair tied back Izzy—as she is called—openly shared the details of the eye-opening trip that had her visit women exiled by their communities. Over three mentally and physically exhausting weeks of travel, the extent of period poverty in parts of India and Kenya was clear. In the town of Kajiado in Kenya, Izzy said the vulnerability of women and lack of menstrual education spoke volumes. Teenage girls asked Izzy, “How do I use a pad?” and “What does a pad look like?” Izzy wrote in a TABOO blog post that the most confronting story was: “I get really painful cramps on my period, but I must walk 7km to get home after school and if I stop because of the cramps it might become dark.”

“Um, it was very confronting and scary at times but also just absolutely threw us into an environment where, not that we were uncomfortable, but we just had to learn as we were going,” Izzy said.

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During their time in Kenya, Izzy and Eloise learnt about the different ways that organisations respond and work to support girls and women in different communities. (Image source: TABOO)
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The pair also mentored groups of young girls on menstrual health and care. (Image source: TABOO)

Life-long friend Mackenzie Neumann said, “I think a lot of people can be blinded by her achievements and charisma, perceiving her as this perfect, ambitious young woman with not much more below the surface, however, this is not the case with Isobel.” Izzy is known amongst her friends and ‘lightly bullied’ for her poor driving capabilities. “One of the first things that comes to mind when I think about Isobel are the numerous occasions of near misses.” The combination of poor eyesight and forgetting to wear glasses at night puts those who dare to ride with Izzy in back-seat driver mode. But, what Mackenzie actually wanted to share was: “As a friend I think Isobel’s best traits would be her loyalty and caring nature. As a person in general I think her best quality is her diligence and drive to succeed in all endeavours.”

Izzy is a ‘typical’ university student. She is in her third year of studying medicine at the University of Adelaide and loves spending time with her family, friends and three dogs.

But, how many students can say they also co-direct a social enterprise?

After attending a leadership conference at Bond University as year 12s in 2016, Izzy and Eloise were intrigued by the concept of a social enterprise. What started as a relatively blank canvas of “let’s just see what people think of this” has transformed into TABOO, Izzy said. Today, TABOO is a cause-driven enterprise that helps to improve the lives of women around the world – one pad at a time. All profits from donations and sales are used to ensure that women all over the globe have access to sustainable sanitary care and education. The team of volunteers dedicate their time to help sell and distribute TABOO sanitary products both online and to Malvern IGA in Adelaide.

Izzy’s love for adventure and caring nature led her to spend three months working as a nanny in France. During this time, Izzy conducted on-ground research and located what is now TABOO’s manufacturer of sanitary products in Barcelona. “We originally were trying to contact a lot of Australian manufacturers—the big guys that make U by Kotex pads—but none of them were willing to talk to us at all, they also aren’t organic,” Izzy said. At the end of 2017, TABOO crowd-funded over $50,000 to buy the first batch of TABOO organic sanitary products.

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Isobel packing orders of organic TABOO sanitary products. (Image source: TABOO)

The importance of giving back is not new to Izzy. “Mum and Dad totally introduced me. We’ve always been a part of a church,” Izzy said. “My dad is in the building industry and he was helping out building a medical centre in a city just out of South Sudan’s capital city. This trip was my first hands-on experience.” Being exposed to poverty from a young age, when other children are shielded from the harsh reality, has paved the way for Izzy’s desire to make a difference wherever she can.

“When I was younger I was always interested in journalism. I’m also obsessed with perfume. I actually wanted to be a perfumer for a while,” Izzy laughed. But, after reading Hospital by the River by Dr Catherine Hamlin and John Little, “I knew I would get a lot of satisfaction from a job like that,” Izzy said. Inspired by Dr Hamlin’s medical work that has transformed the lives of 45,000 Ethiopian women, TABOO raises money for One Girl – a charity that gives girls and women in Africa access to sanitary products and menstrual health education.

So, how do you do it? “I mean it is definitely not easy but the fact that Eloise and I are in it together is absolutely crucial,” Izzy said. “We have quite different timetables so we can leverage off of each other’s free time and we are close enough to handball things off to each other and ask for help.”

TABOO has an amazing team of eight volunteers, all under 30 years old, that help with tasks like promoting, fundraising and packing. “It’s an incredible environment to be in because we’re all friends which is super, super helpful. So when we’re doing TABOO we’re kind of ticking off our social life,” Izzy said.

With high standards for her grades; her role in TABOO; her role as a family member; her role as a friend; and her role as a girlfriend “there’s not much time that’s not pressured”, Izzy admitted. But, Izzy’s desire to combat period poverty and to ensure that all women have access to appropriate menstrual health education and safe menstrual hygiene products makes it worthwhile.

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