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'Up until recently, there were a lot of football stadiums that didn't even have female toilets'

Paul Fennessy speaks to Orlaith Duffy of ‘On the Ball,’ a campaign for free period products in sports grounds.

Erin Slaven (left), Orlaith Duffy (centre) and Mikaela McKinley (right) of the 'On the Ball' campaign.
Erin Slaven (left), Orlaith Duffy (centre) and Mikaela McKinley (right) of the 'On the Ball' campaign.

FOOTBALL IS SUPPOSED to be inclusive.

At its best, the game aspires to bring together people, from a wide range of backgrounds, who share a common love.

These lofty ideals are not always realised, however. 

Even in the present day, some fans would be forgiven for being put off, given the instances of fan violence and racism that remain all too common in elite football.

Yet to counteract these problems, there are others working hard to ensure football stadiums are as welcoming an environment as possible for everyone, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Erin Slaven and Mikaela McKinley from Glasgow, and Belfast native Orlaith Duffy, are among those contributing to the good fight.

The three Celtic fans had been involved in activism in the past but were never “at the forefront” prior to this initiative. They moved in the same social circles but have only really got to know each other over the past two years.

In March 2018, they went to parliament, witnessing MSPs voting to repeal Scotland’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act on the grounds that it was ineffectual and unfairly targeted football fans.

“On the bus back, we were feeling quite inspired, and thought these are normal working-class people that we know that have made this massive change,” Duffy tells The42.

“Erin had heard that the media had picked up a lot on period poverty. 

While she was at a game the weekend before, she realised that the provisions weren’t great. The machines sometimes [were inadequate], there weren’t bins in all the toilets, and it’s never really accessible. Sometimes, it is quite expensive for people going. So she brought the idea to myself and Mikaela.”

From there, the trio started a petition for football clubs to provide free period products at their grounds. It garnered over 3,000 signatures and they consequently arranged a meeting with Celtic’s Supporter Liaison Office, John Paul Taylor.

A deal was subsequently agreed upon and Celtic became the first club to join the ‘On the Ball’ campaign (which is sometimes referred to as ‘On the Baw’ — a nod to the Scottish slang for ‘ball’).

Less than two years on, as of the time of our interview, 105 clubs have signed up to the initiative. It mainly comprises of English and Scottish teams, but there are also a couple of Irish clubs, including Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda United and Derry City, while the first GAA team – Cardinal O’Donnell’s in West Belfast — has just joined. Further afield, LA Galaxy and Borussia Dortmund have also committed to the project (you can view the full list of clubs that are signed up here). 

Nevertheless, it is a grassroots campaign. Slaven, McKinley and Duffy all have day jobs and whatever work they do for ‘On the Ball’ is undertaken in their spare time. It means they can’t afford to personally travel to every single football club and enter into negotiations.

“The only club we have ever approached is Celtic,” Duffy explains. “We encourage fans to contact us if they think this is something their club should be doing and they want the club to provide. We then go from there, equipping fans with all the information they need to bring it to their club.

“It helps fans see that their club will listen to them and it shows a connection between the fans and the club. The club can say ‘we’ve listened to our fans and we’ve given them what they want’.

Realistically, 99% of the teams that are ‘On the Ball,’ we probably won’t visit. The likes of LA Galaxy, we don’t have plans to go to a game. Same with the teams in Brazil, even a lot of the English teams, we don’t plan on attending those grounds, so for us to [personally] ask those clubs to provide us with period products in their bathroom would not really sit right.

“A lot of the fans that have approached their own clubs and clubs that are ‘On the Ball’ come back and it’s allowed them to open up [channels of communication with] members of their club that they otherwise wouldn’t speak with. Whether it’s health and safety, the grounds management, people higher up. It then means they’re more confident and more comfortable going forward, because they know they’ve been listened to before.”

There is also, Duffy explains, a degree of freedom for the clubs in how exactly each choose to implement the initiative.

“We’ve never had anybody come out and say ‘no, we’re not going to do it’. A lot of clubs just need a wee bit of education and information really,” she adds.

“But the club have that ownership of how they want to go ahead with it. Not everybody needs to have a contract with health providers or hygiene providers to implement free period products. A lot of people have just a box put out and it’s added on to the monthly order for toilet roll and soap — the other basic hygienic needs. Some other people have managed to do partnerships with brands and things like that.

“So it’s down to the club how they approach it and it gives them that kind of ownership. They’re not being told: ‘You need to sign up with x, y and z, and it’s going to cost you this much, this is what you need to provide.’

“It also means that they’re more willing to do it, because a lot of the time, they’ll do it on a trial basis. They’ll say: ‘We’re going to have products in the toilets for the next four matches, we’ll see what the cost is, we’ll see how usage is.’ We just let them know that in the beginning, the uptake tends to be a bit higher, but that’s because it’s new. It’s like everything, because they’re not used to seeing it. But the usage generally drops after a couple of weeks of it being implemented, because it’s just a normal thing [then].” 

There has been progress made in relation to ‘period poverty’ outside of football too. Last month, it was confirmed that free sanitary products would be made available in schools and colleges in England, following on from similar initiatives in Scotland and Wales, as the stigma surrounding periods gradually dissipates.

Despite such progress, however, Duffy believes there is more work to be done.

I think stadiums can be more inclusive, not just to females,” she says. “There are a lot of different things that, as society moves on, public areas and things like that can be improved on.

“Football stadiums, I suppose, have moved on. Even in the last few years, you look at how much more inclusive they are becoming. They’re historically male-dominated areas, so there are some things that aren’t [perfect], but they’re also becoming more family friendly. They are becoming places with a lot of different people put together. But for fans, they could do a lot more. Baby-changing facilities is a big thing that we hear a lot about.

“A lot of people that have had period products then go and ask their club not just for nappy-changing facilities for children, but changing facilities for adults with incontinence, or [who need to get] changed.

“A lot of areas are also now bringing in toilet facilities for LGBTI and things like that. So I think in the future, football stadiums will just move with society, and there will always be room for improvement. And again, that’s down to society, and the whole way we look at things. Up until recently, there were a lot of football stadiums that didn’t even have female toilets, never mind them providing period products. So they are generally moving with the times, and that’s something we are so proud about being able to have an input in.”

For more information, you can follow ‘On the Ball’ on Twitter or visit their official website.

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Paul Fennessy

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