The worrying fact that British schoolgirls are skipping school because they can’t afford sanitary protection came as a shock to many when a troubling report was released earlier this year.
Student Amika George, 18, was among those left in disbelief that girls as young as ten were missing out on the education they have a right to because of a natural, biological function that they can do nothing about.
She decided to do something to tackle the issue and set up a Change.org petition calling for the Government to offer free pads and tampons to girls on free school meals.
Since launching, it has racked up nearly 10,000 signatures, with Amika earning the support of numerous celebrities and cross-party MPs.
This is her inspiring story, importantly including what you can do to help:
What inspired you to launch your period poverty campaign?
I read a report commissioned by the BBC that had discovered that a Leeds-based charity called Freedom4Girls that supplies sanitary products for deprived communities in Kenya had been approached by a school in Leeds. They’d noticed a pattern in absences, and discovered that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary products. I kept re-reading the article because I just couldn’t believe it was happening in the UK.
It transpired that this wasn’t a situation isolated to Leeds. It was actually happening all over the country. I was really moved reading this. It was heart-wrenching to read that some girls were stealing toilet roll from public toilets and stuffing them inside socks while others were using torn-up rags. Some of these girls were as young as ten!
I just knew that I had to do something because this was a situation that we simply couldn’t ignore, and that if someone could do something, why not me?
You are only campaigning for girls who qualify for free school meals to get free sanitary provision, at this stage. Do you think launching more realistic campaigns is the key to enacting change?
I would absolutely love for every girl, on FSM or not, to be given a wad of free sanitary protection every month. But this just isn’t going to happen. In the current financial climate, I can’t see the government being willing to ensure all girls are given free protection as I think the cost would be prohibitive and I don’t believe the will is there.
I decided to target my campaign to the provision for girls on FSM because they’re the ones who need it the most. If a girl is on FSM, the chances are that her family is struggling financially. Many households are struggling under the weight of crippling poverty. Some of these families depend on food banks, and if that’s happening, then it’s highly unlikely that buying sanitary protection features on your weekly shopping list. Often the choice is between having one or two meals a day.
Do you know anyone affected by this issue personally?
I don’t know anyone personally who is affected. My friends and family are all lucky in that we have a supply of pads/tampons when we need them.
Have any girls affected by the issue been in touch?
Yes and I’ve been moved to tears reading their stories. Period poverty is real. Girls have told me that they can’t bear the thought of going to school using old rags as makeshift protection because they know they will bleed onto their clothes. They know they will be laughed at by the whole class. Some have said that they make a pad last for two days, and lesson time is spent stressing about whether there would be blood on their clothes when they stand up at the end of the class. Others have said that it’s easier to miss school completely when they’re on. The thought of going to school without protection is too much to bear. Missing school means lagging behind in their education, but what choice do they have? Quite a number of girls have said that teachers are the real heroes. Many wonderful teachers buy sanitary protection from their own pockets and keep them in baskets for those girls who’ve
Some have said that they make a pad last for two days, and lesson time is spent stressing about whether there would be blood on their clothes when they stand up at the end of the class. Others have said that it’s easier to miss school completely when they’re on. The thought of going to school without protection is too much to bear. Missing school means lagging behind in their education, but what choice do they have? Quite a number of girls have said that teachers are the real heroes. Many wonderful teachers buy sanitary protection from their own pockets and keep them in baskets for those girls who’ve
Others have said that it’s easier to miss school completely when they’re on. The thought of going to school without protection is too much to bear. Missing school means lagging behind in their education, but what choice do they have? Quite a number of girls have said that teachers are the real heroes. Many wonderful teachers buy sanitary protection from their own pockets and keep them in baskets for those girls who’ve
Quite a number of girls have said that teachers are the real heroes. Many wonderful teachers buy sanitary protection from their own pockets and keep them in baskets for those girls who’ve ‘forgotten them’. It’s these teachers who give these girls back some dignity, but it’s time for the government to intervene.
Why do you think this issue has been invisible and ignored for so long?
The problem we have here is that menstruation isn’t something any of us feel too comfortable talking about. That’s a fact. It’s a dirty, secret word and the taboo around period talk means that period poverty has been something girls aren’t encouraged to discuss. We are taught that from such a young age and it’s wrong. We have hundreds of euphemisms for periods, don’t we? Aunty Flo, The Visitor, Time of the Month…it’s ridiculous!
The stigma and silence around periods has meant that there has not been enough coverage in the media of these sorts of issues and for the girls in question, it’s easier to cope with the pain and trauma alone than to go through the embarrassment of raising period issues to a teacher.
How can people best support your campaign?
By signing the petition first and foremost so that we can show the Government that people are shouting for change.
But it’s also about creating a movement, an army of support. People can tweet their MPs, write to them and generally pester them, to tell that this issue needs to be addressed. Write to celebrities to ask for support and ask them to tweet about the campaign so everyone knows that period poverty exists and that we have a plan of action to eradicate it!
If enough people put pressure on the government, then they will sit up and pay attention. Let’s make it hard for them to ignore us all.
What has the response to your campaign been like so far?
It’s been incredible. There are generally two camps; for every person who says ‘I don’t believe this is happening here in the UK. I just had no idea’ there are another two who say ‘I was that girl’.
Have you got any high profile people or groups on board?
Yes! I’ve been surprised at the number of high-profile people who are totally behind the campaign and say that the time for change is now. From film director Kevin Loach to the Mayor of London, to Fiona Philips, Cathy Newman, Rachel Johnson and cross-party MPs. It’s been amazing! Cherie Blair read an article about my campaign online and emailed me asking me what she can do to help. She agreed that period poverty must end.
I’ve recently been working with Baroness Burt of Solihull, who is simply brilliant. She’s been a real champion of gender equality and was the first Peer to proudly say the word ‘period’ in Parliament. Whenever she gets the opportunity, she raises my campaign in Parliament to stress how critical it is that these girls are protected.
What has the response from men been like – both friends and high profile?
Men struggle with periods. Many boys I mention my campaign to are keen to learn more about it until they hear the dreaded P-word, at which point, the conversation is hastily manoeuvred towards another less controversial subject. Not that I stand for that. I always make it a point to ask them why they’re so awkward around the topic, seeing that if their mothers didn’t have a period, they wouldn’t be there.
I’d definitely say that there are more high-profile women in support of the campaign than men. The comments left on the petition are sometimes from men, and many are moved by the injustice. That’s encouraging, but I’m hopeful that with more conversation around periods, we can all help to normalise what is experienced by half the population for most of their lives.
How have you been balancing school commitments with the campaign?
It’s been tough! After finishing my homework, I usually email MPs and do interviews, if possible. Exam time was challenging to say the least, as I was asked to be on a panel to discuss period justice and it happened to be in the middle of exams! It was too important to not attend, so I took my books with me and revised en route!
I try and find a balance which is sometimes not easy, I was invited to be on BBC Radio 5 last week, and I had to do the interview from Paddington station on my way to a university open day.
It never feels like a chore because these girls don’t have a voice and deserve to be in school. Every time I reach into my drawer to grab a pad or tampon and I realise I forgot to replenish my supply, I can nip out and buy some. It’s unimaginable that these girls don’t have that choice.
Do you think more young people should get involved with social justice campaigns?
I think everyone, young to old, should try and change something they feel is unjust or wrong. You will always find others who believe exactly as you do, that it’s time for change. That first step is the hardest and once people are by your side, it never feels as though you are on your own.
What do you think could help stop periods being a taboo subject in society?
The only thing that will stop periods being a subject that’s off limits is discussion. We have to stop being ashamed of having periods, we have to stop apologising for the fact that we are born with a uterus. We bleed because we are normal women. It’s healthy and we should be proud that our bodies are complex and have the ability to create another human being.
We need to make periods as normal a subject as the weather and we can do this only by talking about it more. That goes against everything we are taught to do, but it’s time to debate and discuss. This is definitely happening. There does appear to be a real shift around periods, especially around period poverty, and this is just brilliant. There’s definitely a real wave of activity and a rise in public conciousness. It’s about time period shame was consigned to history!
Which women inspire you the most?
I was totally inspired by Laura Coryton, who drove the campaign to end tampon tax. She’s been a great source of support for me as I started this campaign. I admire women who aren’t afraid of going against the tide of public opinion, who believe in something so passionately that they won’t stop until it’s achieved.
What are your next steps and ambitions for the future?
My next steps are to continue convincing more and more MPs across all parties that they must be raising this in Parliament, and working on behalf of these young, vulnerable girls. I’m trying to raise the profile of the campaign as much as possible to maximise signers, so please do share the petition. I’ll be organising a protest later on this year, and I also have some speaking opportunities where I hope to raise the issue and let more people know that this is an issue that shouldn’t be one.
I’m hoping to spend the next year continuing my A levels, before going to university next year.
Woah, just us who has a new idol? This lady is the definition of awesome. Please share Amika’s petition widely and encourage all your friends and family to sign it so we can end this injustice together.
Originally published 7th July 2017