Meet our Period Warriors: Emily Wilson, IRISE International

Meet our Period Warriors: Emily Wilson, IRISE International

When it comes to fighting for Period Equity, these women know a thing or two. This month, we took a deep dive into the work of five different women, on making the world a better place for people who bleed.

Emily Wilson from IRISE International is passionate about transforming the cycles of disadvantage that many women face

  • Where did your story begin? How did you start working in the menstrual equity space?

I’m currently CEO and Founder of award-winning charity Irise International – we're a global leader in menstrual health programming, research, advocacy and policy development. We work to transform people’s lives through period equality.

Before all of this, I worked as a junior doctor in London. Although I loved being a doctor, I found myself increasingly frustrated with a system that often failed to meet the health needs of women and girls. Irise was born out of the conviction that a female body should not be a disadvantage.

  • Why do you do what you do?

Ultimately, I do what I do because I want to change the status quo and enable marginalised groups, particularly young women and girls, to have more power over their bodies and lives. I want them to have more of a say in shaping their communities and societies – until we have a world where a female body is not a disadvantage.  

At Irise, we define period inequality as preventable disadvantage created by the interaction between the female body and the way we choose to structure our communities and societies. Let me explain how this works in action using some examples from our work. 

Over half of girls we work with in Uganda miss out on vital schooling every month because they don’t have enough support during their period. This affects their ability to realise their full potential and continues to impact their ability to earn an income in adulthood – nearly a quarter of women working at the market continue to miss work during their period. It also puts some girls and young women at increased risk of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation – 1 in 10 girls report having transactional sex in exchange for period products, 1 in 5 get products and support from someone other than an appropriate care giver and 14% knew someone or had experienced violence because they were using household finances to buy period products. Overall, this means that women struggle to realise their full potential, continue to earn less than they could and have a lower status in their communities, making it harder for them to take part in community meetings, access leadership positions and change the situation for others like them. This cycle is not just about pads or pants, it’s about an unjust distribution of power that maintains the status quo even if it’s not really working for everyone. 

The situation is not too different in the UK. Despite endometriosis affecting 1 in 10 women, it takes an average of 8 years to get a diagnosis and the situation has not improved in over a decade. When you look at the data on investment it’s easy to see why – less than 2.5% of publicly funded research was dedicated to reproductive health in 2014. Those affected experience a significant burden impacting on their education and employment and often describe being dismissed by their doctors and not taken seriously. Ultimately, this too comes back to power. For a very long time the male body was considered the default in medical research and science, technology, engineering and maths subjects are still male-dominated meaning that female specific issues are often overlooked and underinvested in.

My job and the work of Irise is all about transforming these cycles of disadvantage. 

  • What are you most proud of in the work you do?

Sometimes the challenges we face and the injustices we witness can seem too big to change and we can feel small and powerless. It’s when we come together as a community that we can unlock our power to drive change and turn that sense of powerlessness into collective action.

I’m most proud of the Irise community and what we manage to achieve together – our community currently includes 174 small organisations and grassroots groups across 7 countries and is always growing! 

For example, our recent Annual Gathering brought together Ugandan MPs, UK charity workers, researchers, young activists from the UK and East Africa, community-based organisations, funders and donors to talk about how we can best work together to realise period equality. This consensus building across really diverse groups and cultural, geographic and social divides is essential if we want change the status quo. 

I also love the way the Irise community has become a place for groups and individuals to grow and develop. We’ve been able to offer training and support to 287 organisations to address period inequality in their work and more recently small grants to grassroots groups in East Africa and bursaries to young activists in the UK. One young woman, who at just 24 is the Founder and Director of Girl Power Connect in Uganda, told us, “Irise has not only given us funding but visibility and a community to learn, share and be better together in taking action against period poverty, advocating for period friendly communities.” A young woman from the UK shared, “Irise is the first space I've been part of where I felt empowered to challenge and dismantle my own internalised stigma surrounding menstruation and puberty, and to support others to do the same. Joining the Irise community at the age of 22, it was one of the first spaces in which my ideas and contributions were genuinely valued on equal terms to those with more years of 'professional' experience. Moreso than any other organisation I've worked with, Irise actually puts its values into practice, and constantly strives to do more to embody its principles. It is an organisation that is committed to using research and innovative programming to understand and address deep-rooted inequities, rather than simply putting sticking plasters over the symptoms. Above all, Irise is an institution that not only encourages us to believe that a better world is possible, but actively creates space for young people to participate in bringing a better world into existence.”

  • Where have you seen positive change during the time you have been working in the menstrual equity space and where do you still see room for improvement and growth?

There has been increased recognition that inadequate support for periods is an issue and there are so many amazing organisations and people working within the movement who are achieving so much on all fronts: research, policy change, innovative product development, meaningful service delivery etc. I think those working on this issue need to be conscious of power dynamics within the global movement, particularly as it continues to grow. It’s so easy to inadvertently replicate the power structures that create disadvantage because it’s what we’re used to: for example, groups based in the Global South tend to be less well-resourced which makes it too easy for institutions based in the Global North to dominate the narrative and direct the resources that are available towards their priorities. It takes a conscious effort to build inclusive structures and leadership spaces and continual learning and development. I don’t pretend to have cracked this at all, but if period equality is ultimately about power then we need to be thinking very actively about how we redistribute power, not just pads!

  • What is the biggest challenge you face in the work you do?

Finding innovative ways to lead and work both within Irise and externally is a big challenge. We recognise that period inequality exists because of our current power structures, so we want to consciously combat that in all aspects of our work. It’s often easier to define the problem than it is to create an innovative solution but we’re committed to doing both. Practically it means thinking very deeply and trying out innovative approaches to leadership at all levels of the organisation and the Irise group – for example we recently held a consultation across our community in the UK and East Africa to create a set of shared principles to guide our work and we’re currently exploring a joint commitment to feminist leadership principles with our partner and sister organisation Irise Institute East Africa.  

  • Why is menstrual equity so important?

It’s important because the disadvantage many people experience because of their period is preventable. It’s a result of the choices their communities and societies have made, often unconsciously or inadvertently and sometimes more intentionally, about what is important. These choices have serious consequences for those affected – they are holding many people back from realising their full potential and exposing those worst affected to sexual exploitation, abuse and violence. This is a preventable injustice. Period. 

  • Why is Irise excited about working with Modibodi?

We’re really excited to be working with Modibodi because of our shared values. We see Modibodi as a company working hard to change the status quo, challenge harmful social norms and deliver solutions that are sustainable and inclusive. We know that we are more powerful when we work together and we’re delighted to be collaborating on building a world where everyone can realise their potential unlimited by their period. 

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