Last month it was announced that free sanitary products will be provided in English schools. Amika George, the 19-year-old behind the campaign, tells Stylist why there’s still work to do.
Amika George was on her way to the library when she heard the news. “I got a text from a friend and burst out crying,” she says. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, had just announced that the government would start providing free sanitary products in English schools.
It was no wonder George was feeling emotional – for the past two years the teenager has campaigned tirelessly for just that, preparing for TED Talks and rallies between essays and homework. She’d made eradicating period poverty her mission after reading a BBC article one morning.
“It was about a charity called Freedom4Girls that provides menstrual products to schoolgirls in Kenya which had to redirect products to Leeds because there were girls there who couldn’t afford them,” George says. “I couldn’t believe it and I naively expected the government to step in straight away. That didn’t happen at all.”
George set up an online petition called Free Periods with the aim of pressuring the government into taking action. It garnered 200,000 signatures in two weeks, leading to 2,000 people protesting at Downing Street in December.
“[Models] Adwoa Aboah, Suki Waterhouse, Daisy Lowe and [Labour MP] Jess Phillips all turned out,” she says. “Everyone was wearing red. It felt so empowering.”
But to George, Hammond’s promise isn’t a total victory. “I don’t want this to be a one-off political pledge,” she says, “It needs to be a legal obligation for all future governments.” Free Periods is working with a lawyer to build a case, and George wants the campaign to go beyond Britain.
“This is a global issue,” she says, as demonstrated by the stories below. “I get so many messages saying ‘I want to tackle period poverty in India or South Africa, how can I do it?’ I want Free Periods to be an umbrella for activism.”
She also believes there is a wider problem to address. “In a patriarchal society, periods are seen as a secret because a big percentage of the people in power aren’t faced with them every month,” she says. “When I think about a world that has gender equality, it’s one where periods are openly discussed.”
“My friends have sex for money so they can buy pads”
Grace, 18, from Nairobi, Kenya
I usually use cotton wool to manage my period. I live at home with my mother, father and brother. I remember when I first started, my mother told me I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys anymore because I was a woman now.
I didn’t really understand what she meant. Nobody has ever properly explained it to me. I don’t think the boys know what it is, but they laugh at us if we have a period stain and say that we are smelling.
I don’t go to school much when I am on my period. This is because I don’t really have anything to stem the flow. One time I used an empty carton for chocolate biscuits which was stuffed with cotton wool. It was extremely uncomfortable and I did not leave the house, but I had to try something because there was nothing at home. Some girls use animal skin, grass or leaves but I don’t really want to try that. It is easier not to go anywhere and stay at home instead.
I have some friends who sell themselves to be able to afford menstrual pads because they are so expensive. But we don’t really talk about it. I know I’ve missed important days at school, like tests, because I was on my period. I just tell the teacher I am sick. Without access to menstrual products, I feel I don’t really have a choice.
“I free-bleed into my clothes because I can’t afford pads”
Simi, 18, from Punjab, India
To earn money, I herd goats on the other side of the mountain where I live. I left school at 12 and I got married at 16 because my family said it was the right time for me. I live with my mother-in-law’s family.
When I am on my period, I bleed into my salwar [trousers] because I am not able to afford pads. I wash and change the trousers a couple of times a day. When it’s really hot, I change them one extra time. Time off isn’t an option. I’m used to the sensation of free-bleeding although I feel very tired when I am on.
I remember I did not suffer so much when I was pregnant. I remember not having to wash my pants until I started my period again after the birth of my child.
I’ve never really been told what a period is. I know that periods have something to do with babies, but I only found that out after giving birth to my son. The doctor told me that it helps me to have a baby. We don’t observe any of the Indian rituals of not touching things when we are on our periods, because then who will do the work? Who will feed the family?
With thanks to Binti; bintiperiod.org
“I miss school every month because of my period”
Patience, 11, from Fort Portal, Uganda
I was so scared when I first started my period, I thought I was dying or had cut myself. I ran to my mum and told her what had happened. She said it meant that I was a woman and could have babies. She told me to keep away from boys until I got married. That scared me even more. She told me I had to wear cloths between my legs to soak up the blood then wash them out at the end of the day and dry them under my bed.
I am lucky my periods are not heavy, so I only miss one or two days a month at school, but I know some of my older friends have to miss a full week as their periods are so heavy. I know girls who have sex with taxi drivers to get money to buy pads. I wouldn’t do that, but some girls are desperate to stay in school.
I always wondered why girls in school shuffled around the playground not playing or why they spent the whole playtime standing against the wall, because they are so scared they’re leaking and have stained their uniform.
I always stay until everyone’s left the classroom to check I have not leaked when I’m on my period. I am more focused on whether I have leaked on my clothes than what the teacher is saying. I want to do well, but not having proper period supplies holds me back.
With thanks to Freedom4Girls; freedom4girls.co.uk
“There is no medicine for my all-day cramps”
Khurshida, 18, from Myanmar
I had my first period when I was 14 and I didn’t know what it was. My sister-in- law taught me how to wear a cloth in my underwear. When the fighting started in Myanmar and my uncle and cousin were killed, my family went to a refugee camp in Bangladesh.
I had to leave most of my clothes behind so now I only have two sets of clothes, one cloth sheet and no underwear. When I have my period the blood gets everywhere.
The camp can be dangerous so I stay inside a lot, but it is very hot. The toilet is far away and I have heard about boys abducting girls so I am too scared to go. My home doesn’t have a bathroom so I wash myself outside early in the morning or late when nobody’s around.
I have terrible cramps but there is no medicine for me to take so I am cramping the whole day. My mother will notice and allow me not to cook, but then my sisters have to do everything. I lay down in bed and can’t do anything, and sometimes I don’t even like to eat rice because I am in pain.
With thanks to Plan International; plan-uk.org
Stylist’s guest editor Adwoa Aboah says:
“We’ve all heard stories about people who can’t afford sanitary products, but I wanted to hear from the women and girls actually going through the situation we’re trying to fight.”
Images: Mark Harrison / Courtesy of Binti, Freedom4Girls and Plan International
Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.