Julia Lasica, with cover art by Anna Curzon-Price
My period arrived during my summer holidays. I was just into my teens and remember that my greatest worries centred around the fact that I couldn’t swim in the pool for a couple of days. I also had to figure out which position was most comfortable to combat my aching tummy, settling for the hammock as the prime place to retreat to with my hot water bottle and soft blankets. When I told my mum the news, she sighed and hugged me, before sending me on my way, equipped with pads and chocolate. A lot of women around the UK have a fairly similar experience. Our list of priorities with regards to our periods is largely topped by the mental and physical discomforts that tag along with it every month – how we actually get the relevant menstrual products is something many of us take for granted.
Yet there are girls and women in the UK who are not as fortunate – Amika George was sitting at the breakfast table one day, about to rush off to school, when she read an article about girls in Leeds who were skipping school every month, for a week at a time. ‘I was eating cereal and scrolling through the news, when an article about girls who were too poor to afford menstrual products came up. They were taping newspapers, toilet paper, socks, whatever they could find, to their pants, and sitting at home, losing out on an education. I was shocked, and as I looked into it more, I saw that the government were aware, but were doing nothing about it. The Secretary of Education at the time, Justine Greening, was ignoring questions about the problem in parliament whilst girls were missing something which would affect their futures, all because of their period.’
So, Amika decided to do something about it. That evening, she set up a petition online calling for the government to provide girls from low-income backgrounds with free menstrual products. ‘I remember I had a lot of work that evening on my laptop for school, and I kept refreshing and refreshing the petition page, watching it go up from five signatures to 15, 50, 60. I sent it around school to all my teachers, pestering to have it put on the official newsletter sent to parents and pupils.’ The number of signatures grew and grew, and Amika realised that there was a greater sense of momentum behind the campaign than she had previously expected. ‘I think that the petition came at the right time, because lots of people had read the same article and were looking for a way to channel their anger at the injustice of the situation. In a couple of weeks, it had gone up to 2,000 signatures but I still didn’t really think that anything would come of it.’
Something did happen because of it – the timeline of the ensuing #FreePeriods movement has never lacked energy and impetus. 2017 found the Lib Dems and Green Party both including the goals of #FreePeriods in their manifestos, a protest of over 2, 000 people braving the December cold outside of parliament, and Amika talking to countless big media outlets about the issue- the word ‘period’ was planted very firmly in public discourse. Around a year after Amika had first read the article, the government pledged money to a charity working to address period poverty; in late September, Amika flew to New York to receive a Goalkeepers Global Award, talking plainly about periods in front of guests like the Gates, Ed Sheeran and Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of UNICEF.
‘When I first read the article, I remember chatting about it to friends and family, and realising that it wasn’t just that period poverty wasn’t being talked about- there was also a stigma around periods themselves’, Amika says, when I ask about how the campaign has changed with time. ‘That is something that came out of the campaign as it progressed. And I do think we are having an effect and that the mindset is shifting – the word ‘period’ is being normalised now in the media, and online too, it comes up in Instagram posts, in tweets. When I talk to people about it, not just women but men too, the overwhelming reaction is so positive; in New York, I saw people with large followings embracing social justice, embracing periods.’
As I was writing this up, I paused and looked back at the sentence I wrote about first starting my period. My mum ‘sighed’ – we didn’t actually discuss what had just happened to my body, only resigned ourselves to the change I was undergoing. Then I remembered that after complaining to my grandfather about the pain, he told me that I was the first women to ever talk about her period with him. I recall the biology and PSHE lessons; embarrassed teachers covered our periods clinically, a brief lesson in anatomy rather than an education in the nuances of the situation. I understood very clearly that women and girls are expected so much of the time to navigate something as physically, socially and emotionally complex as a period, in silence. It must have been what the Labour MP, Danielle Rowley, was thinking about when she stood up during a debate about period poverty and announced to the Commons that she was on her period.
And it is this culture of muteness, one which will affect readers of this piece, making them uncomfortable to read about the topic, or prevent them from even opening the link, which causes what Amika is campaigning against. It is because of this culture that manufacturers of sanitary products aren’t held to the same standards as other industries – women don’t actually know for certain what is in the sanitary products they use every month. Upon testing, one particular type of Always pad was found to contain residues of organochlorine pesticides and pyrethroid insecticides. It is because of this that the same manufacturers continue to use harmful plastics as other industries switch to reusable materials- on estimate, the waste one woman creates because of her period could fill two minibuses.
What would your advice be to people who feel these social injustices and wish to do something about them, I ask Amika. ‘Find your community. There will always be someone who cares about the same cause you do and there will be people who agree with you. You will find your confidence through your passion. I always go by this saying: there is strength in our numbers.’
Amika is now studying at Cambridge and has created a petition calling on Cambridge County Council to provide free menstrual products in all of its public facilities. You can sign the petition here:
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