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Empowering vulnerable women in the city

India Burgess, BA History, and Gabriella Hartfield, LLB Law.

For many homeless and vulnerable women, sanitary products are out of reach. Meet the students who’ve decided to do something about it.

Sanitary products that are essential for health and wellbeing are, for some, an unaffordable luxury. This is true for many vulnerable women, such as those living below the poverty line, sex workers and the invisible, sofa-surfing homeless.

India Burgess, BA History, and Gabriella Hartfield, LLB Law, wanted to make a difference. They established the Once a Month Student Action volunteering project to regularly provide sanitary products to vulnerable women across Manchester.

Raising awareness

An idea that started while chatting over lunch quickly developed into something real. The pair knew they were onto something that would benefit the community.

“It’s brought down the taboo of the subject,” India explains. “It’s something that’s a bit awkward and most people don’t even realise it’s an issue.”

Creating care packages

Each month volunteers make up more than 60 cardboard boxes filled with tampons, sanitary towels, hand sanitisers, baby wipes and chocolate. Each box costs around £3 to put together. These are then distributed through their partner charities, Mustard Tree and Manchester Action on Street Health.

Through their work they were also able to make their packing event part of the 2019 Reclaim the Night campaign, which organises marches against violence towards women. Volunteers packed bags and care packages for the march.

“Once a Month is an easy way to dip your feet into volunteering and to bring people together around a common cause,” says Gabriella.

In recognition of their efforts, the project was named New Volunteer Project of the Year at the Students’ Union Awards and Volunteer Group of the Year at the University’s Volunteer of the Year Awards.

We’ve learned how much you can have an impact with just an idea.

Personal growth

Their work is an example of the kind of activity that Stellify, the University’s transformational academic and extracurricular activities programme, encourages students to undertake. India and Gabriella admit they bring very different skills to the project, with India the organiser and Gabriella the idea generator. “We’re quite different but had one of us not existed, it wouldn’t have worked,” explains Gabriella.

The pair have developed skills beyond their courses, including logistics, event planning, project management, public speaking and marketing.

Looking to the future

India and Gabriella have now handed the project over and are taking on some new challenges. India has started her postgraduate degree in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge and wants to work in sustainable development, while Gabriella is training to become a human rights and immigration barrister.

As for the project, the first packing event of the new academic year has now taken place and the new team are focusing on securing sponsorship. “This would mean they could put things like washbags and reuseable tampons and pads in the boxes,” says India. “They’re more sustainable and practical.”

And it’s not just happening in Manchester. The word has spread across the country with friends in Brighton, Newcastle, Loughborough and Bristol wanting to set up their own projects.

“We’ve learned how much you can have an impact with just an idea,” says India. “You have to have confidence to back yourself and just go for it.”

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