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Why we need to provide free sanitary products for schoolgirls

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Many schoolgirls in the UK miss school when they’re on their periods because they can’t afford sanitary protection. Here, stylist.co.uk’s digital features editor, Sarah Biddlecombe, meets some of the women working to change this, including #FreePeriods founder Amika George and The Pink Protest co-founders Scarlett Curtis and Grace Campbell

As every woman knows, getting your period is a less-than-pleasant experience. In between the bloating and the bleeding, the cramps and the headaches, it’s a monthly occurrence that most of us would be happy to live without.

But think of how much more uncomfortable your period would be if you couldn’t afford the necessary sanitary products or pain relief that usually goes hand-in-hand with making menstruation more manageable. Then imagine yourself back at the age of 14 and sitting in a class at school, and suddenly being surprised by your period – and knowing you have nothing to stop the flow of blood seeping into your school clothes. 

The scenario is horrifying – but it’s a fact of life for numerous school girls in the UK. Back in March, staff at the charity Freedom4Girls, which provides sanitary products to women in Kenya, discovered that girls in Leeds were taking time off from school because they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products when they were on their periods.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour at the time, Tina Leslie, a public health worker in Leeds and member of Freedom4Girls, said she “wasn’t shocked at all” by the admission, and that we would all need to work to “give these girls their dignity back”. She added that the issue was “linked to poverty” with some “25,000 visits to food banks in Leeds last year”.

There is no research available to give us an idea of the full extent of the problem, and with the taboo surrounding periods, it’s likely that many girls would be keen to avoid talking about the issue in the first place. But steps are finally being taken to eradicate the problem, with 18-year-old schoolgirl Amika George founding the #freeperiods movement to open up the conversation and provide access to sanitary products, such as tampons and pads, for those who need them the most.

Today, Amika’s movement will culminate in a peaceful protest on parliament, organised by activist group The Pink Protest founded by Scarlett Curtis, Grace Campbell and Alice Skinner, to call on Theresa May to “provide free menstruation products for all girls already on free school meals”. The march will take place on Richmond Terrace from 5-8pm and include speakers such as Adwoa Aboah, Daisy Lowe, Tanya Burr and MPs Jess Phillips and Paula Sherriff. The organisers are calling for women to wear red, to represent both period blood and anger.

Ahead of the march, stylist.co.uk talks to Amika, as well as Pink Protest co-founders Scarlett Curtis and Grace Campbell, to discuss why the movement is so important - and why now is the time to act.

Amika George, founder of the #FreePeriods movement

What is the importance of the #FreePeriods movement in the UK?

The #FreePeriods movement was established to make sure that no child in the UK misses school just because she can’t afford menstrual products. Some children in the UK are missing up to a week of school every month because they’re fearful, stressed and anxious about going to school without adequate protection, and they’re scared of bleeding onto their uniform in front of their class. We all know how mortifying that can be, but if it’s happening every month, it’s harrowing. For many, it’s easier to just stay home near the toilet, and that’s wrong. These girls are missing out on opportunities because of a normal biological process which we have no choice over.

What feedback have you had from schoolgirls about the movement so far?

So many girls out there are really happy that we’re talking about periods more now, and normalising the conversation around it. I’ve been contacted by schoolgirls who are hopeful that they won’t have to rely on teachers and friends bailing them out when they don’t have cash for period products, so that can go to school and have the same opportunity to learn as their male counterparts. 

One girl said she always knew there was no cash for menstrual products because her mum would go to the food bank when things were really tight, so she wouldn’t want to trouble her by asking for money for period products. She would fashion socks stuffed with wads of tissue paper, held down by sticky tape, to use as pads when she was on her period. It’s just not acceptable. I believe it’s a fundamental human right that every girl should have access to safe menstrual management.

What do you want to achieve with this march?

We want to it to be a really positive experience for everyone there. We have a range of strong, diverse and inspirational women speakers, and we will all stand united, in solidarity, on behalf of every girl who has ever had to miss school because she can’t afford to have her period. The ultimate aim is to show Theresa May and her government that they need to take action. For what is a relatively small amount of funding, they can change the lives of these girls and show that they are investing in the future of young people. 

What change would you like to see for women in 2018?

We need the government to be far more proactive in addressing issues of gender inequality. Young women feel disillusioned at the moment because we don’t feel our needs are addressed. I’d like to see more women at the top of their game, and more female representation in the boardroom, with women confident and emboldened to change the rules. We need to be teaching our daughters that they don’t have to accept the status quo and that if they see something they don’t like or want to accept, they can drive that change. 

Amika George is one of Stylist’s Women of the Year. Read more from her here.

Scarlett Curtis, co-founder of The Pink Protest

Why did you start The Pink Protest?

I founded the Pink Protest in January 2017 as a way to get young women in London mobilised around the London Women’s March. Our goal is to help young women engage in online and offline activism and to bridge the gap between activists, non-profits and engaged young people who want to make a change.

In 2017, we hosted a series of discussions and workshops and have made two video series highlighting the work of some amazing young activists. The #FreePeriods protest is our first actual protest so it’s a very exciting step for our group.

Why are you using Instagram as your main platform to spread your message?

There’s a lot of critical dialogue around the negative implications of social media on young people and, while I don’t think it’s entirely unjustified, I do believe that to call Instagram a ‘bad thing for young people’ is incredibly single-minded. My online community saved my life when I was a teenager, so I know first-hand how vital those spaces can be for people on the margins of society. Social media is the greatest tool our generation has at its fingertips and there are so many amazing people using the platforms to change the world. 

From the boom of female artists, to the ability to mobilise, Instagram is a free, egalitarian tool and one that we would be idiotic not to fully utilise. My dream is to create a world where the people with 10 million followers on Instagram aren’t just supermodels, but activists and organisations working to fight for a better world.

What other causes are you working with as part of The Pink Protest?

Our first campaign was the “Are You An Activist”  video series, and we’ve also just launched another series to support the Help Refugees Choose Love pop-up shop. In January we’re hosting an event with Sad Girls Club and a campaign focused on mental health. There’s lots more to come in 2018 and we couldn’t be more excited. 

Grace Campbell,  co-founder of The Pink Protest

What do you want to achieve on the #FreePeriods march?

There are two big aims. The first is to loudly signal to Theresa May and her government that we aren’t going to go away until our demands are met. We wanted to organise something which is loud and unifying, in the hope that in the new year, the government will want to begin engaging with us on how we can work together to end period poverty. 

The second aim is to break down the taboos that surround talking about periods, which a lot of our speakers will be doing. It is 2017: we need to be moving further away from adverts in which period blood is still blue, and enter into reality.

What would you like to see change for women in 2018?

I would like those in powerful positions to realise that just because we have a female Prime Minister, the fight is not done. We live in a deeply-rooted sexist society, and in 2018 I would love to see a real attempt to delve into the institutions which nourish this sexism, and finally find ways to eradicate it. 

Images: Rex Features, iStock, Alice Skinner