STANDING proudly outside the gates of 10 Downing Street, teenager Amika George yelled her war cry over and over again.
Within seconds she was joined by the deafening sound of 2,000 other women and girls sending shock waves through Whitehall as they all demanded the government “Free the period!”
“It was such an electrifying atmosphere,” remembers Amika, 19, who organised the protest in December 2017 to ask the government to fund free sanitary products in classrooms, after reading how young girls were skipping school because they couldn’t afford tampons. “I could tell that this was a huge moment in history and we were at the centre of it. So many women and girls were with me, all of us dressed in red and all desperately pushing for change. I knew that if we made enough noise, the government couldn’t ignore us any longer.”
And they didn’t. Just three months after Amika’s rally, which had models such as Daisy Lowe stand among its ranks, the government pledged £1.5million to help tackle period poverty – not being able to afford sanitary products. Then just last month the government went a step further by announcing that it will provide free sanitary products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year.
And the revolution didn’t end there. Earlier this year, news broke that the period blood emoji is expected to hit smartphones later this spring, while last month when one male Twitter user tried to “mansplain” periods, he became embroiled in a massive social media takedown. In a post claiming women exaggerated menstruation costs, he inaccurately cited that only seven tampons were needed per cycle, or 10 for those with an “extra juicy uterine lining.” Women struggling to buy sanitary products should, he said: “Cut down on Starbucks venti frapps and stop whining [sic].” The post went viral, with thousands of women taking to the social platform to call out his idiocy.
According to Harley Street gynaecologist Dr Hina Sra, the rise of social media, plus the #MeToo movement, has created the perfect storm for women to take on the period-shamers.
“From a GP’s point of view, I’m seeing less embarrassment from my female patients,” she says. “We’ve seen a huge shift in attitudes in the past few years and gender equality has never been more reachable. Influential figures like actresses Emma Thompson and Amy Schumer are speaking publicly about female health – with Amy admitting that the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a girl is someone finding out you’re on your period.
“Campaigns aimed at women’s issues, such as cervical cancer, are also contributing to more open discussions and awareness of women’s health and wellbeing. Social media has played a pivotal role in normalising these conversations by getting the message across.”
The fightback started to rumble in 2015, after artist Rupi Kaur’s photo of a fully clothed woman whose trousers were stained with menstrual blood was removed twice from Instagram for “violating community standards.” The photo-sharing platform received such a backlash that it apologised and reinstated the photo. That same year, drummer Kiran Gandhi made headlines across the globe after free bleeding – menstruating without using protection – during the London Marathon, sparking other women to follow suit in their everyday life.
Another key figure in leading the revolution has been author and feminist activist Laura Coryton, 25, who five years ago launched a fight to abolish the 5% levy applied to sanitary products, known as the tampon tax. “That tax should never have been there in the first place. It’s outdated and sexist,” she says. “Charging women for a natural bodily function sends out a damaging message and supports the taboo that periods make us lesser in some way.”
It was in May 2014 that Laura first realised women were being unfairly taxed on sanitary products and launched an online petition. Within two years it had collected an incredible 320,000 signatures and in March 2016, Parliament promised to scrap the tax by 2020.
“The majority of reactions were inspiring,” Laura remembers. “Even Barack Obama pledged his support. But I also received a lot of criticism and was called names like ‘another insecure, mad feminist.’ It was really eye-opening.”
Since her victory, Laura has launched social media movement Period Watch to make sure the government keeps its promise after Britain leaves the EU. “Seeing tampons and periods being openly discussed in Parliament sets an important precedent for future generations,” she says. “Having a period should be, if anything, something to celebrate, because it shows you’re in good health. It’s brilliant that people are finally waking up to that way of thinking.”
Amika started her call for action from her bedroom in April 2017 after reading about the extreme lengths some girls went to because they didn’t have enough money to buy sanitary products.
“Growing up I was lucky enough to be able to afford tampons and pads, so I’d never been aware of period poverty,” she admits. “But one night I came across an article about girls either using toilet roll, torn-up T-shirts, socks taped to their knickers or skipping school altogether because they didn’t have the money to buy protection. It horrified me – no girl should be faced with the indignity of knowing she’s bled over her uniform in front of her class or be forced to miss out on her education because she’s terrified of going to school. So I decided to spread the word and talk unashamedly, not just about period poverty, but menstruation, too.”
From her room Amika, who studies history at Cambridge University, created an online petition for her Free Periods campaign and quickly started sharing it with her friends and family on social media. Within six months her campaign had gone viral, with supporters such as model Suki Waterhouse and vlogger Tanya Burr getting involved.
“To me, that proved that the campaign was long overdue,” says Amika. “It was amazing, as though all these young women finally had an avenue to get their voices heard.”
As the petition hit 80,000 signatures in November 2017, Amika decided it was time to organise a peaceful protest in Parliament Square to get her message across loud and clear.
“I wanted to mobilise the enthusiasm that we’d created online into real action, otherwise nothing would change,” she says. “So I got as many women as I knew to spread the word about the protest, as well as inviting MPs, celebrities, influencers and various women’s rights activists.
“It was a lot of work, but 2,000 people turned up. We all dressed in red and sang loudly with banners about periods. It was such a pivotal moment.”
And when the government pledged £1.5million, it triggered a domino effect across the UK. Days later, the Welsh government pledged £1million to address the issue, while in August 2018 Scotland followed suit by announcing a £5.2million scheme to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities.
Amika isn’t stopping there, however. She’s now teamed up with a human rights law firm, as well as the charity Red Box Project – where a red box filled with sanitary products is given to schools so no young person misses a lesson because of their period – to launch a campaign that aims to ensure the British government maintains its commitment.
“We’ve come so far, but there’s still a way to go,” says Amika. “Part of the problem is the awkwardness and embarrassment around menstruation.
I’ve seen grown men gingerly shuffle away when I broach the subject and I’ve lost count of the number of red faces I’ve seen – from both sexes – when I mention the word ‘period’. This taboo has a lot to answer for, because it can make women too scared to speak out. Unless we break the stigma and normalise conversation around menstruation, progress won’t be made.”
Unbelievably, it was only last month that the NHS made the decision to provide free tampons and pads for all hospital patients in England from this summer. The commitment came after doctors raised concerns about availability to patients in June 2018. Meanwhile, one in three UK women admit to experiencing period shaming, either through bullying, isolation or jokes, in the workplaces and at home or school. According to Hina, this ignorance has been caused by a lack of education.
“This taboo is a historical problem,” she explains. “For so long women have been considered second-class citizens, meaning their health just wasn’t important, and so natural processes – like menstruation – weren’t spoken about. This led to misunderstandings and prejudices that menstrual blood was ‘bad’ or ‘dirty’. There’s been no real education in schools to set these false assumptions right and so the trend just carried on.”
It was after her own horrendous experience at school that Alice Smith, now 23, decided to call on the government to update its guidelines on sex education to include an in-depth section on menstrual wellbeing.
“I first experienced severe gynaecological pain when I was just 12,” explains Alice, who works in recruitment and lives in Manchester. “When my period started a year later in 2009, it got worse. My monthly bleed was so heavy I’d use up to 12 tampons and pads in an hour, and I soon became anaemic and suffered from chronic fatigue. It was embarrassing and I found it difficult to discuss, because speaking about periods just wasn’t the done thing.”
Alice made an appointment to see her GP, but was told she was just suffering from normal cramps.
“I didn’t question it as I had very little knowledge about periods. They’d only been mentioned once in school when a nurse had put a tampon in a glass of water to show how it expanded, but that was it. Plus, I felt embarrassed as it just wasn’t something you discussed with other people. My mum Suzanne would comfort me, but she wasn’t a doctor so couldn’t say what was wrong either.”
In 2010, Alice was finally referred for a laparoscopy – a minimally invasive surgical procedure that allows a surgeon to access the inside of the abdomen – and diagnosed with endometriosis.
“Even after my diagnosis I still found it difficult to talk about, because there was such a stigma surrounding periods,” she says. When she hit 17, still suffering from heavy, painful periods, Alice decided to speak out.
“I was fed up of feeling that women weren’t allowed to talk about menstruation so I posted on social media about what I was going through,” she says. “The support I received was really heart-warming. It was so empowering and made me think that we should be learning about these issues in school. As a woman, you’re expected to just get on with it when you have period cramps, which isn’t fair. So I launched a social media campaign to get menstrual health on the curriculum.”
In February 2018, Alice set up a Change.org petition called Stop Treating Periods Like A Dirty Secret.
One year on, it had garnered more than 100,000 signatures and in February the government responded by announcing that it will be compulsory to teach students about periods in English schools from 2020.
What is the tampon tax?
- The Tampon tax is the name given to VAT charged on women’s sanitary products including tampons, pads and towels.
- The rate is currently five per cent, compared with 20 per cent VAT on most products and services, while some essential items such as food are exempt or zero-rated.
- Campaigners have warned the charge makes it harder for women to afford sanitary protection, leading to “period poverty”
- Supermarkets such as Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose have all slashed the tampon tax – saving their customers five per cent on all sanitary products
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“I’m so proud of what the campaign has achieved,” says Alice. “There’s been a massive gap in our education system, but the new curriculum will ensure both boys and girls understand more about periods and will help end this ridiculously outdated taboo.”
Amika – whose latest crowdfunding petition has raised nearly £23,000 for her legal campaign to pay the human rights firm they are working with – agrees. “Equal access to education is a fundamental human right and no one should miss school because they can’t afford pads and tampons,” she says. “We need to embrace our periods and be proud to bleed. It’s the most natural thing in the world and ending the stigma starts by talking about it.”