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Meet the 18-year-old leading a #FreePeriods protest on parliament today

Amika George is an activist who is helping to lead the UK campaign against period poverty

Period poverty in the UK is real and underreported issue. One in ten British girls have been unable to afford sanitary products, and nearly half are embarrassed by their periods. But today at 5pm, a march on parliament led by teen activist Amika George will be the culmination of efforts to push the government into recognising and challenging the issue. Speakers will include Gurls Talk's Adwoa AboahSuki Waterhouse, Jess Phillips MP and Sami Chakrabarti.

Essentially, the #FreePeriods campaign, supported by The Pink Protest, is striving to convince the government to provide free menstrual products to all children in the UK, but for the time being, they are focusing on giving sanitary products to girls who qualify for free school meals: a simple, effective and achievable way of tackling period poverty.

For young girls like me, the ability to discreetly get free sanitary products would have been life-changing. I was so embarrassed the first time I got my period I didn't tell anybody – not even my mum (who, ironically, is very comfortable and open to talking about them). To this day I'm still not 100 percent sure where the source of shame came from, but it persisted over many years.

Instead of requesting or asking people for tampons or pads, I'd be forced into using makeshift toilet roll wads, staining countless pairs of underwear. Growing up with £5 pocket money per week, I usually didn't have enough spare income to buy expensive tampons or pads of my own if my period caught me off guard. Even at home I didn't like asking my parents to buy them as I was so ashamed of the situation. Through campaigns like #FreePeriods, I now know that I am not alone.

I spoke to Amika to find out what she's learnt from her first year of campaigning and what she hopes the march will achieve.

When did it all begin? 

Amika George: So in March this year, I was watching the news and heard about period poverty. I'd never heard of people experiencing it and I've never experienced it myself. So when it was uncovered earlier this year it was such a shock to me. The reason it was discovered is because a charity called Freedom4Girls had been supplying menstrual products to schoolgirls in Kenya who were missing school. But they were later contacted by a few schools in Leeds where the same thing was happening. That was what really alerted media attention: the contrast that the same thing was happening in a country that we like to think of as being really economically developed. That was really what shocked me.

I read about girls either missing school for a week or a month, or going to school because they had to, but using alternatives like toilet paper or socks, or newspaper, or the sleeves of t-shirts. And it's hugely damaging to their health and their dignity in the long-term. The taboo around periods means they're embarrassing – and so poverty around them is even more of an issue. These girls face it completely on their own. They don't talk to their parents about it, they can't talk to their friends about it. It's really a problem for so many girls in the UK and worldwide. 

And having learnt that you went on to develop your own campaign?

Amika George: Yeah, so I did my own research and asked my friends if they knew about period poverty. No-one really did. I think what surprised me more was that although the media was starting to explore the issue of period poverty, no-one was really coming up with solutions to change it. That's what inspired the #FreePeriods campaign.

“Since the beginning of time there's been this unspoken rule that periods are not talked or spoken about. We're told from such a young age that periods are embarrassing, shameful and disgusting” – Amika George

I was thinking about my own experiences and being very embarrassed about having a period and putting myself in situations where I wouldn't have sanitary products because I was too ashamed to ask for them. Is that a common story? 

Amika George: Since the beginning of time there's been this unspoken rule that periods are not talked or spoken about. We're told from such a young age that periods are embarrassing, shameful and disgusting. It's something that's imposed on us. Even on TV, you don't see real period blood, you see this blue liquid. Or girls doing unrealistic things like parachuting and rock-climbing. It's just telling girls subconsciously that periods aren't something that should be talking about. Not only does it cripple girls' confidence, it also really excludes men and boys from getting involved, because if women can't talk about periods then men don't feel like they can either.

Have you become a lot more confident talking about them yourself? 

Amika George: Definitely. Since starting the campaign I've tried really hard to smash the taboo wherever I can with my friends and family. I've been talking very openly about periods with my brother which he doesn't always enjoy. And then I did this TEDx Talk a while ago when I said I wanted to see all women free the tampons from the inside of their sleeves and just wave them in the air when they go to the toilet. And now some of my friends walk past me waving their tampons! I think the only way we can get rid of the taboo is by talking about them.

And when did things start picking up with the campaign?

Amika George: I started the campaign on the 1st of April and when the general election was called a few weeks after that I contacted all the political parties and told them that period poverty is a very real issue in the UK and they should address it. The WEP and the Green Party responded and included a pledge to end period poverty in their manifestos and the Lib Dem's did something similar after.

Just to have the word ‘period’ in three manifestos is a real step forward. I think after that it received more media attention. This isn't a divisive issue, that girls are missing school or using horrible methods rather than actual menstrual products. It's not something that anyone thinks is right or normal and that's why people get on board and want to see the government take action.

So how will free sanitary products work on a practical level?

Amika George: We've estimated that it will cost around £5million for the government to put a system in place. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge amount of money. There was this trial run in Scotland of women from the lowest income families being provided with free menstrual products. That was really successful and so they're now rolling that out to the whole of Scotland from 2018. There will be free menstrual products provided in all schools, colleges and universities. The way it worked in the trial was with this free S-Card, which is a really discreet card which people could show in school or in the pharmacy and that's how I imagine it happening. Obviously, we still pay tax on all menstrual products, so I think that would be the best place to get the money from. The tax shouldn't exist in the first place.

“This isn't a divisive issue, that girls are missing school or using horrible methods rather than actual menstrual products” – Amika George

Are you quite hopeful this could happen – that Theresa May will listen? 

Amika George: We've spoken to loads of politicians and we've got cross-party support. I met with a couple of baronesses in the House of Lords and they said it is something the government can quite easily do and will do, but it's only really the Conservatives who have not really responded. I think Justine Greening MP said in parliament the other day that schools have discretion over what they use the money in their budgets for and that if people in their schools can't afford sanitary products that's how it should be covered, which I don't think is a realistic approach. All schools are stretched around budgets and because of the taboo around periods it means it's not easy for girls to go up to their teachers and say, “I need this”. We're hoping the protest will be the tipping point. Apparently, from where we are on Richmond Terrace, Theresa May will be able to hear us from her bedroom!

You touched on the fact that your peers have been supportive of the campaign but has there been any negativity? 

Amika George: I think there was an article in the Daily Mail or something, and after that I got quite a lot of people saying things like ‘Oh, she's just a typical teenager who wants everything for free’. Other people made horrible generalisations and assumptions: ‘I'm sure the parents of these girls are using all their money on buying cigarettes and alcohol’. It just proves that people don't always realise that just because we live in the UK there isn't poverty right on our doorsteps. There's a real divide between the rich and poor in the UK. I think if anything that's what period poverty really proves. People are still in denial.

What are you doing at the moment apart from changing the world? 

Amika George:  I'm from north London and I'm in Year 13, studying towards my A-Levels. I'm doing French, History and Politics and I did Maths last year but I dropped it. I didn't really enjoy it and because the campaign started to get bigger it felt like a forced subject.

Join the protest at Richmond Terrace opposite Downing Street from 5pm, December 20, and sign the petition here

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