I’ll be in Parliament Square tomorrow, dressed in red, and marching to lobby the government to provide free sanitary products to schoolgirls on free school meals.
The campaign calls for an end to period poverty, which leaves women struggling to pay for basic sanitary products. In 2017, the year of the “youthquake”, it is shocking that we tolerate a “tampon tax” (the VAT on sanitary products) that makes sanitary products unaffordable for disadvantaged young women.
The protest is organised by A-level student Amika George, who made headlines earlier this year by influencing Green party policy to aim to supply free tampons to girls on free school meals. Her e-petition got over 85,000 signatures. Now, the 18-year-old north Londoner’s campaign is drawing yet more attention from the media and politicians.
“As girls, we have so many barriers to equality. But to be hindered by something totally beyond our control – part of our biological make-up – really angers me,” George says. “As welfare cuts start to bite and people fall further behind with their rent and paying bills, there’s no cash for menstrual protection. Any disposable income goes on survival. Sanitary products are essential, but are perceived as a luxury, and that’s not right.”
George’s protest is part of a growing movement. Fellow student activist Rosy Candlin is joining the fight by raising funds through partying.
Candlin founded the fundraising organisation Every Month as an undergraduate and is now studying for a master’s while managing volunteers. They deliver 250 packs a month – made up of tampons, pads, chocolate bar, and menstrual cup packs – to local food banks. Menstrual cups are a silicone or latex device inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood and then emptied, washed and replaced for as long as the period lasts. They’re an economically and environmentally sustainable option, as they can be a “one-off”, reusable purchase.
Every Month raises money through nights such as the recent “Let’s Paint the Town Red” event in Manchester that featured DJs, artists, booze, cake and crafts. The organisation has also lobbied local councillors and MPs to provide menstrual products to all homeless shelters.
“I started Every Month because Manchester has been hit so hard by austerity,” Candlin tells me. Tampons are taxed as a “luxury item” so, unlike razors and condoms, many shelters can’t afford to provide them. “I wanted to provide a shame-free way for people experiencing poverty in Manchester to be able to access menstrual products.”
Period activists are working hard to raise awareness of issues surrounding periods. Esther Jackson-Burton learned how to create and edit podcasts at uni. Her series, Vulva La Revolution, explores what makes women “interesting, innovative and inspirational.”
Reluctance to talk about periods can lead to significant health risks as women do not know what is “normal” and may not identify a serious underlying problem such as endometriosis, which requires medical attention.
George has been surprised by the public response to her campaign since launching it back in April. Some girls confided in her that they relied on their teachers for sanitary supplies. Others said they were acutely aware that their parents didn’t have enough cash for three square meals, let alone sanitary products.
There was also criticism. “People would say to me ‘no one is that poor’ and that this is the responsibility of parents, not the state,” says George. “But these are children, and period protection is a basic human right.”
George tells me she hopes that Wednesday’s event will help fight the stigma. “We will wear red to show the government that we’re not ashamed of blood – and they shouldn’t be either.”
- Emma Jacobs is a student at the University of Leeds
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