Amika George: “Activism can be done through your phone”
Free Periods, the campaign she started as a schoolgirl, helped alter government policy. Now, in her new book, the 21-year-old offers guidance on fighting for change, whatever your cause.
Amika George’s brand is powerhouse schoolgirl, fighting period poverty from the same desk she used to revise for her A‑Levels.
But while sixth form is done for the North London campaigner, her education isn’t – she’s now in her last year at Cambridge University, studying History. Nor is the fight, despite the government finally, last year, delivering on what she’d been demanding since 2017: making sanitary products available for free to schools.
That’s because the scheme has been far from wholly successful, with a majority of UK schools yet to opt in. So, what does the 21-year-old student and founder of Free Periods do next?
Make It Happen: How to be an Activist is George’s debut book. Part handbook, part memoir, it reflects a period when youth activism has pushed to the forefront of political and social discussion.
“Activism isn’t something that you have to be committed to as a full-time job – it can be done through your phone,” she says over Zoom from her family home (like most students, lockdown means she’s yet to return to university). “I think we’re seeing a real surge in that being successful. It’s not just trying, it’s actually making real change. There’s concrete proof almost every day now that when the people we’ve trusted with power are disappointing us or ignoring us, you can actually stand up, talk about it and make a change.”
George began her push to end period poverty age 17. At breakfast one morning she read a BBC News article about schoolchildren in England missing school because they couldn’t afford adequate sanitary products to last the day. It’s an issue that affects one in 10 cisgender schoolgirls in the UK, which is not surprising when the average lifetime cost of sanitary products is estimated at £4,800. Children were using wads of tissue paper, rolled-up newspapers or old socks, or wearing tampons and pads for way longer than is safe or hygienic. It’s a monthly crisis that accounts for a third of missed school days.
Horrified, George started Free Periods, a campaign with a simple mission statement: “We want to live in a world where no young person has to miss school because they menstruate.”
Entering this world at a young age, she faced more than her fair share of social media criticism and trolling. She recalls, in the early phases of the campaign, a run-in with (of course) the Daily Mail.
“I didn’t have a proper headshot and I was only 17 so I just gave them a picture of me with my family at a restaurant. [When the interview appeared] I remember loads of judgemental comments making accusations that, ‘obviously she hasn’t suffered from poverty if she’s in a restaurant…’” This wilful ignorance came alongside comments about her appearance and skin colour. George’s approach to moments like this: ignore and move on.
She admits her newfound activism came with other difficulties. “I’m a very stressy person and I have high expectations of myself, so I found it frustrating when the campaign wasn’t moving forward or my MP and the education secretary weren’t replying to my emails.”
Despite the “mental divide” of campaigning and balancing school work, she was tireless in her efforts. George began with a Change petition, assemblies at school, emails to MPs and posts on social media. The petition took off, eventually closing with a flag above it titled “Victory!” and the line: “This petition made change with 276,589 supporters!”
Still she kept at it. George’s campaigning has led to radio shows, TV and newspaper interviews, podcast, TEDx talks, endless emails (some still ignored) and a hugely successful 2017 protest in collaboration with feminist collective The Pink Protest. She even partnered on a 2019 legal campaign with The Red Box Project, Pink Protest and lawyers to challenge the UK Government for not meeting its human rights commitment to providing equal access education to all.
Little wonder that, aged 18, she received a Gates’ Foundation Goalkeepers Award, given to those “dedicated to accelerating progress towards the Global Goals: using powerful stories, data and partnerships to highlight progress achieved, hold governments accountable and bring together a new generation of leaders to address the world’s major challenges”.
All of which paid off. George’s efforts helped lead to free sanitary products being made available in all British schools, colleges and hospitals. In a not-unrelated development, the so-called Tampon Tax – sanitary products, because they were classed as “non-essential” items, had VAT added to the price – was scrapped as of 1st January this year.
But a frustrated George tells me this still isn’t enough.
“The free period product scheme is an opt-in system. Schools have to actually sign up to retrieve the products. Which is fine, but there isn’t enough awareness of that.’’ Indeed, over 60 per cent of schools haven’t claimed their products. “Free Periods is working really hard to encourage schools to sign up and to make a big deal, once they have them, of saying: ‘This is important – we have these basic essentials, not luxury items.’”
What about menstruation education? I started my period later than most, the first day of Year 10, and the last PSHE lesson I remembered didn’t explain what seemed like actually the most urgent stuff: how to put on a pad or put in a tampon, how to deal with cramps and what to expect from your hormones being thrown into spin cycle. Everyone also failed to explain the unreality of women in tampon adverts who climb mountains in a white mini skirt and throw their heads back at the sheer joy of menstruation. For lack of a better educational resource, I resorted to YouTube videos.
George knows exactly what I’m talking about: “The current teaching still perpetuates the stigma and isn’t empowering or inclusive, or even practically helpful!” We laugh over the strange memories we share of PSHE lessons that showed complicated graphics of ovaries and gushing blood. As she perfectly puts it: “You don’t hear about cramps or mood swings and everyday tangible stuff that we go through.”
But inspiration didn’t only come from her own experience. In Make It Happen, Amika George interviews 28 international activists, all campaigning for equality and justice in every sector of society. She’s part of the Youth Power Panel, a group of 12 young people from across the globe, working to accelerate change and bring youth activists together in support of the Gates’ Foundation’s Global Goals.
Through this, George has met and drawn inspiration from a vast and diverse group of young people improving the world from their bedrooms. These range from Inés Yábar, a Peruvian sustainability activist, to Bruna Elias, a Lebanese architect and activist campaigning to integrate the work and aims of businesses in Lebanon with the Goals.
Equally, she looked beyond her own generation, to her late great-grandmother. An activist-who-wouldn’t‑have-thought-she-was-an-activist, Grace Ancheri grew up in Kerala, South India at a time when women weren’t expected to have an independent career. As George puts it: “It was: get married, have kids.” And that she did, before discovering a passion for academia and travelling to America to take a masters in journalism and becoming a professor of English literature.
George’s great-grandmother then returned to India and became a successful journalist, writing about health and women’s issues in national newspapers.
“I remember her telling me how she got on a plane for the first time in her late 30s and was just blown away by the experience. To me that’s it, in a story, that feeling that you won’t let your gender confine you and you won’t stand for what people expect of you. You will forge your own path and do your own thing, breaking boundaries.”
Four years on from launching Free Periods, George saw her aims become reality in other ways, too. In November 2020 Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free, via local authorities, for all who need them – a momentous, truly boundary-breaking moment. She hugely admires Monica Lennon, the MSP leading the charge in the fight for menstrual equality. “Her endeavours started a year before I began Free Periods and it was a big source of inspiration in encouraging me to make change in England.”
I ask why she thinks the rest of the UK is lagging behind Scotland in period legislation.
“With the pandemic, every other issue is being sidelined,” she begins. Nonetheless, when she first started campaigning, “I definitely didn’t feel like this was an issue [the government] was taking that seriously – my own MP ignored the emails I sent him. Even when we did the protest [in 2017] it was weeks before we heard of any change. And the change that did happen was because of individual MPs’ efforts rather than an overwhelming sense of: ‘This is an injustice we can and will fix it.’
“We’re still seeing that sensibility today, governments acknowledging and condemning injustices but not taking the extra steps to improve things that significantly.”
She’s not wrong. The charity Bloody Good Periods reports that it has supplied 53,000 products since the start of the pandemic, nearly six times the amount it was supplying before. A Plan International report has concluded that now three out of 10 girls cannot afford period products. Even though there are currently no school days to miss, periods don’t go away.
George has ‘’definitely’’ noticed the situation growing worse, with teachers contacting her for advice because many more students suffering from period poverty are reaching out to them.
Once again, it appears awareness is a problem. “The schools scheme is still up and running, even though schools are closed. But again there’s not enough publicity that the free products are still available.”
A chapter in her book entitled The Solution encourages readers to picture a world where the issue you’re campaigning against doesn’t exist. When I ask what she sees in this scenario, George replies that she envisages government priorities being aligned with everyone else’s priorities. That is, “if the issues that seem the most pressing to us – like climate change and child poverty or gender inequality and racism – were at the top of the political agenda.
“Which I don’t think is super implausible!” she exclaims. “Realigning what we deem important as a society could make a lot of change.”
After publication of the book and completion of her finals, what, personally, is George’s next goal? She says she thought about a masters but now thinks a break has to come first, a year off to travel – if she can. George is now faced with an opportunity she hasn’t had before: freedom from education to focus on whatever she wants.
“It’s crazy!” she laughs. “To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly what I want to be able to do or work on.” Still, whatever she does, she knows that the Free Periods fight continues.
“Sanitary products are as basic as toilet roll and soap and everything else that governments provide to schools. It’s disappointing that we have had to do this job.” But I for one am thankful it’s a job Amika George took on.
Make It Happen: How to be an Activist (HarperCollins) is published on Thursday 21st January