There are some problems that when solved feel like a great push forward and others that when solved feel as if they never should have been a problem to begin with. Amika George has succeeded in tackling both, aged just 20.
When she was 17 years old, she launched Free Periods – a campaign aiming to end period poverty. In the UK, one in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products, while one in seven have struggled to afford them. Many are missing school as a result. Some resort to using socks sellotaped to their underwear, while others use toilet roll stolen from public toilets.
Appalled by the fact that some young women faced such stressful indignity in a country as wealthy as the UK, George spent the next three years writing and talking to largely blithe politicians demanding they take action. Amid going to school and sitting her A-Levels, she gathered thousands of signatures for an online petition about the issue and staged a 2,000-strong peaceful protest outside Downing Street demanding that then Prime Minister Theresa May "provide free menstruation products for all girls already on free school meals”. Still no one listened.
After an online fundraising campaign, George raised enough money to take legal action. It was then that the government finally took note; in March 2019, three years after the launch of Free Periods, it was announced that menstrual products would be available for free in all secondary schools and colleges in England.
“When you’re someone of a marginalised identity and you’re young, it’s never explicitly said, but you can always feel when someone isn’t taking you seriously,” George tells us.
She admits that maintaining momentum as the government ignored her, while simultaneously juggling school and university applications wasn’t easy. “Sometimes it felt like shouting into a void,” she says. “Over three years, it was tiring. I received so much interest and engagement from young activists who spread the word, but it made the purposeful ignorance of the older generation of politicians who were overwhelmingly male, so didn’t care about periods, even more obvious. It wasn’t a priority for them.”
While it might have been easy for ageing male politicians to bat off George’s campaign, the issue of periods could not be more important. The consequences of the stigmatisation of menstruation is far ranging – not only does period poverty often prevent disadvantaged young women from going to school, but statistically it makes them less likely to finish their GCSEs and go onto complete their A-Levels. Not having access to sanitary products also has an impact on mental health, increasing the likelihood of depression and anxiety.
But it’s not just those without access to sanitary towels and tampons who suffer at the face of periods as taboo. The silence around periods can delay treatment of complex and painful conditions including endometriosis or fibroids. We hide tampons up our sleeves and whisper, not talk openly, to colleagues or friends about whether they have a spare pad because, on some level, we have internalised the idea that menstruation is dirty and shameful.
“I hope it’s not too optimistic to think that one day soon we will achieve gender equality and we’ll live in a world where women’s issues are valued as much as other issues,” says George. “Until then, it’s up to all of us to think critically about these patriarchal norms, which are all internalised. Half the population have periods, which means half the population are stigmatised and marginalised unfairly. If anything, we should celebrate periods, they’re the reason we’re all here – having them means we can reproduce.”
In fact, this is her next goal - ending the stigma surrounding periods. She also wants the government to extend free sanitary products to primary schools for girls who start their periods young, as well ensuring the current government policy is reaching as many secondary schools as possible. A lot rests on her shoulders. She is keen to highlight the voices of inspiring young women who have overcome adversity and is currently on the panel of a Girl Rising competition, in which individuals or groups have submitted their stories. The winning 15 entries will be published on 11 October, International Day of the Girl.
“Activism and storytelling are inextricably linked,” says George. “There’s a real power to storytelling that can change hearts, minds and culture. It can start conversations that are long overdue. Young activists aren’t given enough credit within their community and beyond.”
Much has been made of our politically engaged young as beacons of hope in a world that is increasingly divided by politics and threatened by climate change. George feels the burden acutely.
“What frustrates me is that young people have to stand up now,” she says. “I look at Greta Thunberg and I think it’s so easy for politicians and policy-makers to say, ‘look how inspiring she is, wasn’t her UN speech powerful?’ Making comments like that is much easier than having the conversation about why a schoolgirl is skipping school to protest climate change. Why is it that young people, who are still at school and university, balancing all the stuff that comes with being a young person, are having to be the ones to highlight these issues?”
We talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and how once again it is her generation standing at the picket lines. “A few days after the death of George Floyd I had an exam, and I couldn’t revise. It just felt futile,” she sighs. “I didn’t feel like doing work when I was seeing our politicians either ignoring the BLM movement or condemn protesters. Again, it was young people who prioritised it above all else. Young people are having to focus their energies on wider issues because they’re more oppressed and they’re scared.”
“I’m terrified of what’s going to happen to the climate in the next 100 years,” she continues. “So many of my friends have decided not to have children because they don’t want to bring children into a world that is ultimately doomed. I am terrified for my Black friends who could be murdered in the streets. It’s terrifying that its fallen to young people to correct those injustices. Young people are doing all the work.”
George was born in North London to parents of Indian descent. She says that her diverse community and schools kept her sheltered from racism, and it was only when she started a history degree at Cambridge that she felt a sense of otherness.
“I felt quite overtly racialised and that there was a point of difference between me and my friends,” she says, before adding that - while the diversity levels of Cambridge admissions is improving - real change will only happen once the curriculum teaches students about Black history. “All of my friends educated in the UK were taught about the Tudors about 12 times, but not all of my friends know about Partition or the history of the transatlantic slave trade. If you don’t know about Black history, then of course you won’t understand what racism is. You won’t prioritise racism as a social issue. It’s clear why racist opinions arise.”
She tells me that, amid the studying, campaigning and writing a soon-to-be-published book about activism, she does still make time to be an ordinary 20-year-old. “A lot of people ask, ‘when do you sleep?’ But I really do,” she insists. “I meet my friends, I eat a lot, I watch TV… I’ve been watching Mrs America, which I’d really recommend. I love Gilmore Girls. I’m looking forward to going back to university. There’s been a weird pressure during lockdown to either work really hard or relax really hard. I’m just looking forward to a bit more of a normal life.”
Next month, George turns 21 but the current Covid-19 restrictions means she won’t plan anything until nearer the time. Like most people her age, she’s still not sure exactly what she wants to do post-university. It’ll most likely be political, but perhaps not in government.
“Is being an MP the most impactful way of achieving change? From the outside you can scrutinise, persuade and campaign in a more effective way,” she says. “Of course, there’s an argument for both sides.”
We end our call on that measured note. Amika George might be too thoughtful and wise to become a forthcoming British Prime Minister, but there’s no doubt that she’ll make our country better regardless.
Find out more about Girl Rising's 2020 Storytelling Challenge at mystory.girlrising.org.
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