Campus Society talks to the 18-year-old activist who's taking periods to Parliament
Founder of the #FreePeriods campaign Amika George on battling period stigma, making sanitary products free, and juggling lobbying with A-levels.
In the UK, thousands of girls from low-income families struggle to afford sanitary products, and as a result, are skipping school when their period comes or using unsafe alternatives. This hijacks their education and can continue while they are at uni.
Amika George began the #FreePeriods campaign in April 2017 to request that the government combat period poverty. She told This Morning that the government could achieve this with just £4.8 million, which, considering Theresa May coughed up £1 billion just to stay in power, is peanuts.
Amika is just 18 years old. My life feels incredibly dry in comparison; at 18 I was procrastinating from my Geography homework and getting over-excited at the novelty of legal drinking, not campaigning for women's rights. To further prove her brilliance, alongside the campaign she's studying for four A-Levels in History, Politics, French and Maths at school in North London. We chatted to her about her work, and how she plans to propel her campaign into Parliament.
What exactly is the #FreePeriods campaign?
It’s a campaign to lobby the government to provide free sanitary products to all girls on free school meals. Girls in the UK are missing school every month because they can’t afford their period.
Why did you feel strongly enough about this issue to start the campaign?
When money is scarce, and basic sanitary provision is far down the list of priorities, young schoolgirls are resorting to unthinkable solutions such as socks or newspaper, while others avoid school altogether. Staggeringly, this is happening in schools and colleges across the UK today. That’s just wrong. I would like the government to acknowledge that there is real, abject poverty in the UK which is crippling families. When these families have to rely on food banks just to survive, it’s clear that there’s unlikely to be any money to spend on sanitary products.
Many of the girls in this predicament find that they have no choice but to stay at home and bleed. Some of these girls are as young as 11 years old, and it’s beyond sad that nothing is being done to help them. I never knew this was a problem and I count myself very lucky indeed to have never had to comb my house looking for pennies to buy sanitary protection. I have a drawer fully stocked, but the reality is that there are pockets of society where young girls are suffering from period poverty and cannot tell a soul.
When did you start the campaign?
I started the campaign in April after reading about how an amazing charity called Freedom4Girls was asked to divert sanitary supplies from Kenya to a school in Leeds after it became apparent that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary protection. I was so shocked [upon] reading this and researched [it] to see if anything was being done about it. It wasn’t.
I was pretty taken aback that the powers in the UK were refusing to address an issue that these girls had no control over with what would be a relatively small amount of money. It’s clear that when these girls miss school, they are compromising their education, their dignity, their ambition, and their health.
How did the campaign gain so much traction?
It became apparent almost immediately that there was a lot of support. Many of the people who signed the petition were girls who said, 'I was that girl’, and they were mobilised to share the campaign details with family and friends because they felt something had to be done. Cathy Newman from Channel 4 got on board and tweeted about the campaign, [and] I was contacted by Cherie Blair who wrote me a very personal letter saying she was fully behind the campaign. And Ken Loach, whose 2016 film 'I, Daniel Blake' brought the issue of period poverty to light ... I think it horrifies the majority of people that something that is such a basic, essential requirement [can't] be accessed by so many.
I met with Baroness Burt and Baroness Chakrabarti to discuss how we can move this forward, and it was really encouraging to have cross-party support on this issue and to hear that the word ‘period’ was going to be said out loud in the House of Lords.
Have you heard from Theresa May or her cabinet yet?
Nobody from the Government has been in touch. My own MP, Matthew Offord, has ignored three emails on this from me which is frustrating, but I’ll keep pestering him until he responds!
Has anyone ever told you not to bother with the campaign and to concentrate on your academic work more?
Actually, no! I feel like if I can do something positive, I should. A-Levels are tough, and it can be pretty difficult juggling talks, interviews, media and general campaigning planning work along with university applications, open days, and exams! But everyone has been supportive, and I think they know that although it’s a tough balance, I’m fighting for change, and that’s never easy!
Do you want to alleviate the stigma surrounding periods in general?
100% I do. My campaign is really two-pronged in that I am talking about periods whenever I can. The stigma surrounding periods seems pre-historic. We’ve smashed so many societal taboos recently, but somehow, a natural process affecting half the world’s population, something that is so remarkable in its function, is still talked about in hushed tones and causes huge shame and embarrassment.
Period taboo is just a ridiculous thing – this shame and silence around something so normal means that those suffering from period poverty are too embarrassed to tell people. So the other side of my campaign is to normalise periods and smash a stigma that should be long gone. It’s time to normalise periods, and it’s time to celebrate the fact that as women, our bodies are incredible in their makeup!
Are you applying to uni this year?
Yes, I’ve sent off my applications to study History. I haven't got my heart set on a particular uni yet, I've applied to a few, and love the courses offered at all of them. In five years, I hope to have finished studying and would like to be working in Human Rights.
Do you plan on continuing the project alongside your uni work?
Yes, I do. It’s important that it keeps its momentum. There are other fantastic campaigners also fighting for change and change is happening, so I don't plan to stop until we elicit [this].
Lastly, how can people, particularly students, get involved with and support the campaign?
Please sign the petition, so we can show the government that people are demanding that these girls get help. I’m trying to maximise signatures – it literally takes 15 seconds to do it! Annoy your local MP too – I’m sure we can all pull this off together with enough of us shouting!
Campaigns like this aren't solely for women to take part in, it's important for men to get involved too. Go to Amika's website which is now live, where all you have to do is click on one button to email and tweet Justine Greening, the Minister for Women and Equalities - it’s easy!
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Photo credit: Daily Mail.