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Voices Teenage angst IWD

Why I started the campaign to get free tampons in schools

#FreePeriods campaign founder Amika George needs your support to ensure that girls living in poverty don’t have to skip school because of their period

In our column TEEN ANGST, a different teenager makes their views heard on Dazed each month. Here, in celebration of International Women’s Day, we invited 19-year-old student Amika George to write about why she started the #FreePeriods campaign. Donate to her fundraiser here. 

The right to an education is a fundamental human right – so says the declaration of Human Rights. Yet, we know that this is not happening the world over. We know there are children who are forced to work in sweatshops in many countries, where an education is just a pipe dream. We know that some girls are forced to marry when they are on the cusp of puberty, and we know that some children miss school because they are too poor to afford sanitary pads. I remember lamenting the plight of girls in Kenya and  India who drop out of school as soon as they start their periods, knowing that their future and those of their children will be trapped in one of poverty and deprivation.

In April 2017, when I was 17, I read an article from the BBC where I learnt that this was happening in the UK. Girls were routinely missing school because they couldn’t afford to buy pads or tampons. Others were creating their own makeshift protection using wads of toilet tissue, or newspaper. I was really shocked and disgusted that the government  was refusing to take any action to resolve this, so I decided to lobby them myself, and raise awareness of the ‘period poverty’ that was blighting the lives of girls in the UK.

I started #FreePeriods from my bedroom in April 2017, by putting together an online petition and contacting MPs in Westminster. The response on the petition was uplifting, and far more positive than I’d expected, with the petition amassing thousands of signatures in a couple of weeks, Newspapers and magazines were curious about period poverty, and giving interviews on the subject became a way of raising awareness and demanding change from Parliament.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the influx of emails from girls who described how their families were reliant on food banks, or had to choose between staying warm and eating. Many felt it was just wrong to add to their parents’ anguish by asking for pads. Staying at home, rather than bleeding onto their uniform, was often the only option available to them.

It was clear that something as normal and natural as a period was holding these girls back from achieving what they were capable of. They were compromising on their dreams and ambitions because they bleed, and are poor.

Before the general election in 2017, I managed to persuade the major political parties – except the Tories – to include a pledge to end period poverty in their manifestos. The silence from the Conservatives was deafening. My own MP kept ignoring my letters, but eventually sent me a letter saying the responsibility was on school budgets to provide funding for pads. This is the official party line, but it’s not good enough.

“The campaign morphed into a movement of young people who no longer felt they had to accept the status quo”

In December 2017, I teamed up with the Pink Protest’s Scarlett Curtis and Grace Campbell to organise a protest outside Downing Street, as a visible manifestation of the silence from Westminster. Over 2,000 people showed up on a cold, windy December night, just five days before Christmas, armed with banners and posters and ready to shout about our periods. We had talks from Adwoa Aboah, Tanya Burr, Aisling Bea, Suki Waterhouse, Daisy Lowe, Jess Phillips MP, and many more. We felt inspired and energised, and could see that  the campaign was morphing into a movement of young people who no longer felt they had to accept the status quo. We were ready to demand change, and we weren’t going to wait until the powers in the House of Commons decided it was the right moment.

Two months later, the government pledged £1.5m from the Tampon Tax fund to address period poverty in the UK. It was evidence that activism works. 

However, it was only a temporary solution. A year on, we’ve not seen a long-term statutory commitment to get these girls back in school, so last month, together with the incredible charity, The Red Box Project, we decided to go one step further. We have now launched a legal campaign: we demand that menstrual products are provided for free in all schools and colleges to whoever needs them. We are working with human rights lawyers to build a case to make sure the government complies with its obligations under the Equalities Act. We demand that menstrual products are provided for free in all schools and colleges for whoever needs them. We are currently fundraising to raise cash for the legal campaign so we can ensure equal access to education.

Menstruation should never be a barrier to education, and providing schools with funding to enable pads, tampons and menstrual cups to be available for all will mean that all children can go to school without stress and with dignity, to be the very best they can be. Every child is worth that investment, and it’s time this government proves that they value the future of our young people, regardless of their gender.