Overcoming the period taboo
19 April 2021 at 4:35 pm
Isobel Marshall is the co-founder of TABOO, a social enterprise breaking down stigma around menstruation and fighting to end period poverty globally. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Each month, around 500 million people globally are impacted by period poverty, unable to access sanitary products because of financial barriers, lack of resources or discrimination.
In developing countries, around 30 per cent of girls will drop out of school once they start having periods, and in Australia, a 2017 report found that girls in First Nations communities are often forced to miss school because they don’t have access to pads or tampons.
One of the reasons that more hasn’t been done about this problem is the massive stigma that still exists when it comes to talking about periods. It’s something that Isobel Marshall and her TABOO co-founder, Eloise Hall, are fighting to change.
TABOO sells high quality and ethically made menstruation products, donating 100 per cent of its profits to One Girl, a charity providing education programs for girls and women in Sierra Leone and Uganda.
The enterprise has also partnered with Vinnies Women’s Crisis Centre and the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council in central Australia, to provide free access to pads and tampons for women who require emergency accommodation in South Australia.
For her efforts, Marshall was named Young Australian of the Year 2021.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses managing impact with growth, the challenges of running a social enterprise, and balancing a heavy workload.
Where did the idea for TABOO come from?
Eloise Hall, my co-founder, and I were at a leadership conference at Bond University and we were introduced to the social enterprise business model by a guy called Daniel Flynn, who started Thankyou Water. We fell in love with this concept of taking advantage of a market that’s in high demand and that generates a lot of money to funnel funds or services into projects that need it or that are related to the product or service that you’re offering.
We started questioning how women around the world deal with their period when they don’t have access to products. And that really stemmed from obviously our own experiences, relying on products like pads and tampons to get through school, our part time jobs, [and] just our lives generally. What we discovered was there’s this really massive issue [where] not only a [are] lot of people, families, and communities not able to afford period products, but [there is] this sense of shame and stigma attached to the menstrual cycle that exacerbates the issue. It means that no one talks about the problems that people on their period face, and it’s swept under the rug. This perpetuates this inequality and disadvantages people who bleed. So we became really passionate about those two intersecting issues, and thought why don’t we combine the two and sell our own brand of pads and tampons to the Australian market, which is $300 million every year, and then funnel those profits into projects that ensure girls stay in school and stay employed despite that period. From there it became a business that sold pads and tampons, but it also became a vehicle for advocacy and sparking conversations around periods and challenging the stigma.
How have you managed to maintain your impact while the business has been growing?
I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for social enterprise. Our model is not financially or structurally supported just yet, and I think a big part of that is because social enterprises come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The definition of a social enterprise is really just a business that exists for social impact, but that might mean you donate 10 per cent of profits, or you order a coffee for a person experiencing homelessness with every purchase. So there are all these models, which means that it’s really difficult to support a social enterprise, especially in that growth phase.
We quickly learned that it was really difficult to balance being a reputable and growing business alongside actually generating the impact and the profit. And so we still haven’t come to a point of profit because we only launched our products in August 2019. But we have discovered that we can reach our mission, which is to eradicate period poverty, in ways that aren’t just making profit. We started lobbying alongside state governments and being a voice for people with periods. We are also set to turn a profit soon, which is really exciting.
How do you manage your time and deal with challenges?
I think it’s definitely about being really aware of your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s about taking advantage of those strengths, but also outsourcing your weaknesses. And a big part of that is just admitting that you can’t do everything. And everyone bangs on about how team’s are so important, but it’s the truth, because you can’t do everything. Your skill set won’t allow for it and also because you just don’t have time to do everything. We have an incredible team of 10 volunteers with different skill sets, and we absolutely celebrate that because that’s the only way we can get the job done, really, when all our heads come in together.
Where do you hope TABOO is in 10 years time?
The mission is to eradicate period poverty around the globe. So that’s a huge mission that will take us much more than 10 years. But, things are looking really exciting in Australia. We offer our customers an opportunity to buy on behalf of a woman in Australia who needs sanitary products, and we’ve got some charity partners and organisational partners around the country that we then distribute that donated product to. So I really do believe that we can eradicate period poverty in Australia because multiple state governments around Australia are really cottoning onto the fact that it’s an issue.
And when you’re not running TABOO, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I love hanging out with my dogs and hanging out with my friends. I love being around people and keeping busy, it really energises me.