The Teenage Campaigner Fighting To End Period Poverty
At just 19 years-old, Amika George has already been campaigning to end period poverty for two years, resulting in a UK Government pledge to make menstrual products free in schools by 2020. Here we talk to the #TOGETHERBAND No Poverty Ambassador about her vision for the future for girls across the globe.
Why did this cause speak to you?
Period poverty was not something that I was aware of until I read a BBC article about it. I was thinking about those girls who were my age or younger and missing school for a week a month [because they couldn’t afford menstrual products], which is a huge amount of time in the long run. This is a really gendered issue too as any boy can walk into any toilet and get what they need, whereas a girl can't. It was also because the solution seemed so obvious and it should have happened already.
How does period poverty impacts girls?
The main impact is that girls are missing school. Those who do not miss school use alternatives such as socks and newspaper, which is damaging to their health. Period poverty is about those who cannot afford pain killers too, and all of this has a cumulative effect on the self-esteem of young girls, who are not comfortable with talking to their parents because they're already in a situation where they know food or rent is being compromised. Lots of teachers say they can see the same girls missing school every month, so teachers are using their own money for their students.
Tell us how you started the #freeperiods campaign?
The first thing I did was start a petition. I thought it would make a big difference and could be the starting point of a bigger campaign. There wasn't one moment where it was explosive, it was a gradual thing. Around the time of the first #freeperiods protest in December 2017, it was at 100,000 signatures and it was growing, but that didn't feel like real people until I saw the 2,000 people at the protest. That was incredible - I stood on the stage I couldn't even see how far back the crowd went.
Do you think being so young helped your fight?
The Government and the media have this perception of teenagers as being very lazy, addicted to our phones, not politically engaged or interested in voting. So when they see a 17 year-old girl starting a political campaign and changing Government policy, that is a huge thing. When 2,000 teenagers showed up outside Parliament five days before Christmas on the day they broke up from school - when they could have been at a party - it got so much engagement because it was a youth-led movement. Lots of teenagers are disillusioned with traditional politics and so are taking matters into their own hands with activism and protests. Only 30% of our MPs in the UK are women and the average age of a politician is 60, with less than 2% under 30 – the issues that young people care about are never going to be represented.
Why is talking about periods still taboo?
One MP refused to say the word tampon in Parliament; the fact that they can't talk about periods shows that no one is talking about period poverty. The taboo is holding us back from engaging in issues such as these. But I think we are going through a cultural shift at the moment - the other week MP Danielle Rowley announced in the House of Commons that she was on her period. Things are changing and people are getting more empowered to talk. I hope that the next generation of young people will grow up thinking periods are completely normal.
How does sustainability fit in?
Disposables are still the predominant product used in the United Kingdom. With the Government’s pledge to provide sanitary products by 2020, they also made a commitment in the Spring Statement that all schools will be plastic-free by 2022, so that is a direct contradiction. I believe they will have to provide a plastic-free option. When I started the campaign a lot of people were evangelical about mooncups, and told me that should be the solution. But some of these girls are nine and ten and I think that would be very daunting. In 20 years or so I think everyone will be using sustainable products because it'll be necessary, but for girls who urgently need menstrual products now, I don’t think it is feasible.
How did it feel to hear Phillip Hammond - the then Chancellor of the Exchequer - promise an end to period poverty?
It was really unexpected! I was home for the weekend and I was in the library doing an essay for University. I got a notification from the Guardian news app – that is how I found out. Suddenly I had to email my supervisor and say I can't do my essay, as I had all of these interviews and TV appearances.
Will Boris Johnson now jeopardise this?
I am terrified about it, but they must know how much backlash there will be if they cut it. I have had a big meeting with the campaigners and the civil servants talking about the next steps. The Government has started the ‘period poverty task force’, which is all about period poverty education, stigma, products, and sustainability. So, for them to do all of that work and then scrap it would result in outrage from everyone involved.
Are you campaigning in Northern Ireland?
It feels wrong that it is happening everywhere [in the UK] except Northern Ireland. Two of my directors for #freeperiods are also members of The Red Box Project - the charity which provides menstrual products to schools - and they have a lot of Red Box co-ordinators in Northern Ireland, who have contacted us about doing a similar campaign. However, they don’t have a sitting parliament - they're all over the place in terms of their government - which makes it really tricky.
Will you be expanding #freeperiods into more countries?
The next step is to go global. My aim is to have the #freeperiods strategy rolled out to other countries and then be taken over by campaigners there as I don't want to impose what we have done because it culturally varies so much. I am going to Zambia at the end of August where I will be speaking in schools and working with some charities that run period poverty workshops. They teach boys and girls how to make reusable products and run educational workshops.
However, the issues are unfathomable in some countries; women in Nepal are banished to huts while menstruating and people have died as a result. I want to have a global strategy down before I go back to university in October. It looks like the most impactful thing we can do right now is to use the same techniques and campaigning strategies in European countries. In England it feels like everyone knows about period poverty, however, it hasn’t reached that level awareness elsewhere.
Tell us why you are supporting #TOGETHERBAND
I think it really feels like you're part of something bigger. Even if you're working on an individual campaign, everyone is driving towards one big set of Goals and it feels like you're part of a movement, not driving change on your own: part of creating a better future and a better world.
And who will you be sharing your second #TOGETHERBAND with?
Gabby Edlin, the founder of Bloody Good Period, who provide free menstrual products to homeless women, refugees and asylum seekers.
If you want to help spread the word about Goal 1: No Poverty, you can buy one of our #TOGETHERBAND packs here. You'll receive one to wear yourself, and one to share with a friend, and all the proceeds will go towards projects that directly benefit the Goal.