It’s somehow both brilliant and bleak that 2017 was the first year in which the word ‘period’ was first used in a house of parliament. Last year brought significant milestones in the fight to end ‘period poverty’, a cause that has been championed by the 18-year-old activist Amika George with her #FreePeriods movement.
Yet, as George’s campaign stresses, period poverty is an unacceptable part of everyday life for many children from low-income backgrounds – and one that has gone unchallenged for far too long.
“I think that the existence of period poverty only came to public consciousness as recently as this year, when reports of girls routinely missing school because they couldn’t afford menstrual products were thrust into the media glare” George told Cherwell. “What’s been depressing since then is the lack of any affirmative action by the government, despite outrage and horror that girls were often using socks stuffed with tissue, or newspaper.”
George started an online petition in April 2017 after reading a report about children in the UK who regularly miss school for up to a week per month, due to not being able to afford adequate sanitary supplies. Addressed to Justine Greening and Theresa May, it calls on the government to offer free sanitary protection to children on free school meals. George explains: “Justine Greening’s stance on period poverty is that the onus lies firmly with schools and parents and the government has absolved themselves of any responsibility in finding a solution.
“I think this is terribly myopic – we all know how stretched school funding is, and it’s clear that they’re facing a funding crisis, which is a real challenge for many educational establishments.
“In addition, there is such abject poverty in the UK that families are struggling to buy food and are dependent on donations at food banks. When there’s no cash for food, where is money for period products going to come from?”
The Free Periods movement has estimated that the cost of supplying sanitary products to children on free school meals would be around £4.78 million – a trivial amount given the billions of pounds currently spent on projects such as Trident.
Crucially, this would redress the damaging educational deficit being created by the embarrassment and fear which causes young women to miss school on a regular basis. It is important to remember too that this is a situation affecting many children worldwide. The charity initially approached by schools in Leeds, Freedom4Girls, focuses mainly on supporting girls in Kenya.
Even for those privileged enough not to have to worry about a lack of sanitary supplies, the embarrassment of a period (particularly in a school environment) is a familiar memory – sneaking a tampon up the sleeve here, slowly and quietly ripping open a pad there.
Encouragingly, there are a number of MPs who have declared their support for George’s campaign. A London protest on December 20 saw speakers including Jess Phillips and the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, who recently spoke candidly to parliament about her own memories of period shame at school.
As George told Cherwell: “it’s so important to have MPs who are vociferous in speaking out on behalf of women in the House of Commons because we are underrepresented in the House in the first instance and women’s issues may well get side-lined by other more ‘pressing’ issues.”
So far, George’s campaign has been hugely successful, attracting just over 138,000 signatures at the time of writing. It highlights the important link between educational potential and period poverty, and at the same time has crucially important things to say about how we are educated about menstruation in the first place, and the severity of this issue.
Period poverty should not be a ‘women’s issue’ when it is part of the wider fight against educational inequality. As George told Cherwell: “we need to dispel the culture of shame and embarrassment that we inherit from a young age about our periods and we need to work together to embrace them, to celebrate how ridiculously powerful our bodies are. “Education is key and will underpin any shift in perception on periods – the curriculum needs to change and schools must talk about periods with girls and boys must be part of that, too.”
George hopes that by fighting period poverty and normalising periods, we can take another step towards eradicating the sexism and hypocrisy that still looms over public discussions of what a woman’s body should be.
Positive change is happening in the way the media talk about periods, such as a sanitary advert using real blood rather than blue liquid, (though as George points out, it hasn’t yet been televised). With the continued campaigning of inspirational women like Amika George, we are already beginning to see a much-needed overhaul in the way we interact with periods.