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Emma Rundle, Impact & Partnership Development Officer, University of Exeter

06 January 2020, 9:05 UTC Share

The Impact of Campaigning

On International Women’s Day 2019, ‘Speak Up’ a book aimed at inspiring others to ‘use your voice to change the world’ was published. This book told the story of Laura Coryton’s experience of running a successful campaign and ultimately changing international taxation laws. However, as the book made its way around our office we started to notice similarities between running a successful campaign and delivering impactful research.

With that in mind, we invited Laura to speak to academics and students during Parliament Week 2019. Interest in Laura’s visit came mainly from undergraduates and Early Career Researchers who could see the relevance of her work in their own and wanted guidance on making their voices heard. We encourage our academics to use their work to influence and impact those external to the academic community and we have found that by embedding this at the beginning of people’s careers it has an effect on their work including applying for research council funding and their success as academics.

Laura, who grew up in Devon, started a petition against tampon tax back in 2014. Tampon tax being the ‘luxury’ tax rate paid on all period products. Campaigning was something completely new to Laura and a huge barrier to starting the petition was the feeling that she didn’t know enough. She soon realised however that you do not need to be an expert to make a change, you just need the fire and drive to change something you don’t think is right.

It was that fire, coupled with anger which fuelled Laura’s petition. Anger which came from the discovery that while period products are and remain classed a ‘luxury item’ things like crocodile meat, maintaining private helicopters and playing bingo are deemed ‘essential items’ and therefore escape tax altogether. Laura used to start her petition and found that a powerful change agent was those who had signed the petition. She found they wanted to help so asked them to contact their local MPs about tampon tax which led to a wave of media interest. As media interest grew so did the interest of MPs. George Osborne mentioned Laura’s petition by name in his 2015 autumn statement pledge to end the tampon tax at a European Union level, although she is still waiting for this to come into effect.

We often hear how social media can be a powerful tool in delivering change however for Laura’s campaign, she believes it was online petition sites rather than social media which were the key drivers to success. Petition sites can give a platform to people who may have previously struggled to get their voices heard. In the past, a small group of women starting a petition in Devon may have been overlooked whereas the 320,000 people who signed this online petition could not be ignored.

However, not all online attention was positive. Trolling is a common problem for campaigners and like many Laura was completely unprepared for this. Following her first national newspaper article, Laura innocently checked the comments section to find a series of sexist remarks. The comments left Laura embarrassed and unsure if she wanted to continue but she then realised how she could use the trolling to her advantage.

The sexist abuse she had received, did nothing but strengthen her point that sexism still exists and that women need to speak up against the hate they face for being female. Laura’s campaign continued to grow and in 2019 the world’s first period task force was established which meant real change could be made. The impact of Laura’s petition could be seen across the world with women from India to the United States protesting against tampon tax, even Obama was talking about it. Canada were successful in removing its tampon tax following an online petition and new EU VAT rules will allow the UK to stop taxing sanitary products from January 2022. The Government has also said that it will give free period products to all primary and secondary schools which will help to tackle period inequality and the 49% of students who miss school because they don’t have access to period products.

But that isn’t the end for Laura, she is now planning to launch a new social enterprise with campaigners Julia Coryton, Gussie Ivory-Peters and Sian Green called ‘Sex Ed Matters’ aimed at making sure all teachers across the UK are confident in teaching about periods, consent, LGBT issues, gender and sex education. To find out more, click here.

Emma Rundle is Impact & Partnership Development Officer at the University of Exeter

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