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How I helped convince the U.K. to provide free period products in schools

Read an excerpt from ‘My Moment: 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves’

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This article is excerpted from “My Moment: 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves.”

Everything changed one morning in April 2017. Eating cereal at my breakfast table before school, I spotted a news article on my phone about “period poverty” in the U.K. The term was entirely alien to me, I’d never even considered what I might do if my family hadn’t been able to afford period products. A quick Google search unleashed numerous reports of girls in Britain missing up to one week of school every month, or using horrific alternatives like toilet paper, socks, or newspaper, instead of pads or tampons. I couldn’t believe it.

Period poverty was hitting the very poorest families in the U.K., who had to choose between eating and staying warm. Menstrual care was simply not a priority. Missing school meant these girls were compromising their educational attainment, their ambitions for the future, and the chances of escaping from the clutches of poverty for future generations. They were facing isolation, stress, and loss of dignity.

I waited for a swift and decisive announcement to come from the government, announcing free provision for those who needed it, but despite the gasp of horror from those in power and some media coverage, nothing came. No help was offered.

California will require free period products in public schools and colleges

I don’t know why I thought I could be the one to do something, but something stirred in me. Some kind of jolt within my brain pushed me to look beyond the four walls of my comfortable bedroom, to put myself in the shoes of those girls who were too poor to have a period. They couldn’t and mustn’t be forgotten. That was the recurrent thought in my mind.

That evening, I started a campaign called Free Periods, asking the British government to pledge free menstrual products for all children in full-time education. The next two years, campaigning against the government’s inaction, weren’t easy. It was one continuous loop of writing to politicians, arranging meetings with them after school, giving talks, writing articles, and doing interviews, trying to persuade people to care, and to keep period poverty alive in the public consciousness.

In December 2017, the Free Periods protest saw over 2,000 young people gather in London, to demonstrate our collective outrage and shout about the government’s silence on period poverty. People of all ages and genders assembled, dressed in red and waving banners emblazoned with period puns. As they chanted, “What do we want? TAMPONS! When do we want them? SOME TIME THIS MONTH!,” it was beyond clear that the cry for change was loud and irrepressible. In January 2019, nothing sustainable was pledged by the government, so I began to work with lawyers to prepare a legal case urging for an end to period poverty in schools.

Curious about sustainable period products? These people were, too.

Today, this is a reality. Since January 2020, the government has given funding to every single school in England for the provision of free menstrual products for their students. Now no one has to miss school because they can’t manage their period. No one has to fashion makeshift period protection from old rags. No one has to go through the monthly stress of wondering where their next pad will come from. Periods will no longer hold us back.

But there’s still work to do. Free Periods has now grown into a global movement, and passionate teenagers are fighting for an end to period poverty in countries across the world. I’m determined to use the platform that I am so privileged to have been given to speak out and educate further, and to collaborate with organizations, charities, and campaigners on the ground. I believe that we must take very clear and decisive action to encourage governments to understand that, among myriad other benefits, ensuring free or affordable access to period products in schools is an investment in education, in equality, and in the future of young people everywhere.

For too long periods have been bound up in a patriarchal taboo, associated with dirt and disgust, with fear and impurity, and this needs to change. There is an entrenched culture of shame and secrecy, which perpetuates gender inequality and silences the experiences of those who menstruate. Free Periods is working harder than ever to erase that stigma, by encouraging open and honest conversations around menstruation, with language that is empowering and inclusive, to end the oppressive silence around periods that our society has normalized.

In an uncertain, unequal, and increasingly volatile world, young people especially are raising their voices, creating new, innovative forms of protest, and mobilizing their communities to take a stand. They’re using social media and the Internet to influence those with more traditional forms of political power. My generation has proven that we are resilient and determined to fight social injustices and call out the inaction of politicians whose priorities seem distant and detached from our own. Above all, Free Periods has taught me that activism really can change the world. That’s why I believe everyone can, and should, be an activist.

Amika George is an author and activist.

Copyright © 2022 by Chely Wright, Lauren Blitzer, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy and Linda Perry. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster.