• Katy Rigg

Sisterhood, solidarity and....sanitary towels

My sister, Gemma, is a woman with big ideas and a big heart, and the two things were brought together in perfect harmony on Saturday night, when her grand plans of a fundraising event came to fruition. The two benefiting causes were Smalls for All, a Scottish organisation that sends underwear to women and children across Africa, and The Monthly Gift, a Manchester-based charity that provides sanitary protection to homeless women and women experiencing poverty in the UK.

The concept of the event was multi-layered...because she never does things by halves. The main selling point was a mass ‘Clothes Swap’, where guests were invited to bring several items of unwanted clothes to swap with the unwanted clothes of other guests. There was an impressive array of prizes to be won in the most fabulous raffle I’ve ever laid eyes on, as well as a collection point for donations of sanitary items and packs of new knickers and bras to go directly to the charities.

It promised a win-win situation for all: people’s wardrobes would get the much needed clear out they deserved, guests could indulge themselves in some ‘free’ shopping and take new clothes home at the end of the evening, two deserving charities would have a tidy sum of money raised for them at the end of the night, as well as a wealth of essential supplies to distribute to women in need. There was literally nothing not to like about the whole thing: Good for the environment, good for the bank account, good for the soul.

Gemma had recruited an illustrious committee to ensure the smooth running of events, and we’d all been busy over the previous few months sourcing raffle prizes, promoting the night, selling tickets and generally spreading the word – a glamorous consortium of Santa’s little helpers. The lovely people at Leaf on Portland Street had kindly given us free reign over half their venue, and on Saturday night, with thanks to Gemma’s unparalleled organisational skills and our miraculous teamwork, everything came together like a dream.

The guests arrived, dutifully bearing bags of clothes to swap and donations to give, which were whisked away into the back to be sorted, or hung up and organised onto the clothing rails by diligent members of the task force. The clothes kept on pouring in, and we worked our way through the conveyor belt system we’d established to get them ready. [NB: Never underestimate the power of feeling useful; there is something extremely satisfying about having a job to do. At various points, we pondered over just how brilliant it would be if our regular 9-5 jobs were this much fun, working alongside a selection of your favourite friends.

“This makes me want to work in a charity shop!” I announced, deliriously tipping out bags full of beautiful clothes.

“Me too!” someone else replied. “But only if you can work there as well, and there are all these lovely clothes. And perhaps some wine?” We all agreed this would be a wonderful existence.]

More and more guests gathered and the drinks continued to flow, as two of the team worked the room, drumming up extra funds from the raffle ticket sales. It was an easy sale to make to be honest, once the guests feasted their eyes on the fifty-something (yes, fifty-something!) prizes up for grabs.

Once the last of the clothes were hung up, the rails were ceremoniously wheeled out for ‘browsing’ time to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. Guests were then allowed to have a flick through the offerings and set their beady eyes on particular favourites, ready for when the first official swap round was announced. That was my job, and later on, with an authoritative tap-tap-tap on the side of a champagne glass, and using my best teacher voice, I declared the first swap of the night ‘open’. There were elbows, there were mad dashes, there were a few playful daggers being thrown across the room (some perhaps not so playful…?), and within minutes, the first round of loot had been snaffled. This continued a few more times, before it was opened up for people to help themselves to any remaining items in exchange for an extra donation in the honesty box. Everyone ended up taking clothes or accessories away with them, giving old clothes a new home and a new lease of life. And we all got a little kick out of seeing the clothes we’d brought along to swap eagerly snapped up by somebody else.

The raffle took place later on in the evening, with an impressive selection of offerings of everything from bottles of wine to meal vouchers, hair straighteners to photo-shoots being dished out to lucky winners. The prizes were generously donated by national and local businesses in response to our desperate plea and the evening wouldn’t have been half as successful without them. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

For the entire night, everywhere you looked, there were beaming smiles and good vibes and brilliant conversation. It annoys me that women get criticised for talking too much – ‘chatting’, ‘gossiping’, ‘wittering on’- but conversation is a wonderful thing. You learn things, you bare things, you share things, and it brings you just that little bit closer to somebody else. It’s what gives life more of the substance it needs - meaningful connections with other human beings.

There was also something incredibly empowering about a group of women getting together to help other women – and not just each other, with our positive words and good deeds as the evening rolled on - but the women and girls who will benefit from the two charities. We don’t know them, but my God, we feel it’s our duty to help them, because it’s the unwritten rule of the global sisterhood: you’d give anyone who asked a clean pair of pants and a spare tampon if they needed it, because we all know how awful it would be to go without. The world might not talk openly about this sort of stuff, but behind the scenes, it’s the thing that binds women together.

But the truth is, we can’t imagine the half of it really. Not us, with our steady jobs and regular incomes and stable homes. We're the 'fortunate' ones as we don't have to think twice about buying what we need every month. It’s not a privilege to have access to these things - it’s a basic human need - but we’re amongst the privileged few when you think about the alterative.

It shouldn’t be like that in 2017. There’s nothing luxurious about periods, despite the government taxing it as such, and clean pants and tampons shouldn’t be reserved for the rich. Across some parts of Africa, underwear is a status symbol, and it helps to keep women and girls safe. They are considered less vulnerable when they’re seen as being provided for – by a husband, a brother or a father. If a simple pair of knickers can offer even the slightest degree of security to them, then it’s worth all the fundraising in the world. We’ve a long way to go before the world is fair, but there are steps we can take to help us get there faster.

Saturday night was one of those steps; to get people talking about it, to break the taboo, to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends to rally round and do something great for others.

By the end of the night, as a few of us deliriously headed home for a midnight feast of oven chips and onion rings (as you do), we proudly bore the bundles of goods we’d collected: 23 packs of tampons, 32 packs of towels, 26 packs of knickers and 72 bras, as well as the spectacularly grand total of £1131.40 for our two deserving causes. The warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good was added on for free.

From tiny acorns, the mighty oak grows (or something like that), and this little acorn turned out to be particularly mighty indeed. It took on a life of its own in the end and it was a joy to watch it unfold. All it needed was that one special person to come along and plant the seed.

For more information about the work of Smalls for All and The Monthly Gift, please visit: www.smallsforall.org and https://m.facebook.com/MonthlyGiftMCR/?locale2=en_GB


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