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EXTRACT: Make It Happen: How to be an activist by Amika George

By February 13, 2021No Comments

Our extract this week is from Make It Happen: How To Be An Activist by Amika George, which encourages us all to ‘GET UP. SPEAK UP. DON’T GIVE UP’ in the face of society’s myriad inequalities…


Spring 2017

I was at the kitchen table, having breakfast before school, scrolling on my phone. ‘Girls Too Poor to Buy Sanitary Products Missing School’ was one of the top stories on BBC News.

I was curious; the byline declared that a charity supplying pads to girls in Africa had been asked to divert their supplies to the UK. I clicked on the link, intrigued. The article described how the charity Freedom4Girls had been contacted by a school in Leeds after teachers started noticing some girls’ patterns of absence. These girls, who lived in England, girls just like me, couldn’t afford to buy pads or tampons. Many of them came from families that were struggling to put food on the table. The journalist interviewed teenage girls who admitted that they would often go to school with wads of tissue paper wrapped around their underwear, hoping it would keep them dry until the end of the day. They would miss school for days every month, not wanting to risk bleeding all over their uniform. One said she was too scared to tell anyone, keeping it a secret until she finally worked up the courage to ask for help months later. Another said she was overwhelmed when she started her period. She had no idea what was happening to her body and started missing school every month. She felt isolated and alone.

I sat back in my chair and thought about what I’d just read. I was outraged. Like many of us, I’d heard about girls being too poor to afford period protection in other countries around the world. In fact, just weeks earlier, I’d read an article in Time magazine about period poverty in India, and the impact on a girl’s life when she drops out of education. I remember the sadness I felt reading how, in the country in which my grandparents had grown up, 113 million girls between 12 and 14 years old were at risk of dropping out of school simply because they weren’t equipped to manage their period due to the shame and stigma of menstruation. Some schools, especially those in rural areas, didn’t provide toilets that were safe and hygienic, with access to running water and the means to dispose of pads safely. I remember shuddering as I read about how girls used leaves, hoping they would absorb the blood. Leaves. I hadn’t been able to get my head around it. School just wasn’t a place for a poor girl with a period.

When my grandma came over that evening, I spoke to her about the article. I wanted to know what it had been like for her, when she was growing up in India. She laughed at the shock on my face when she told me how she would fashion her own pads from neatly folded cloth inserted into a belt, which she would hoist onto her hips in the days before disposable products were common. We spoke about the shame, so culturally embedded in a country where menstruation is considered unclean and impure.

But this felt different. This article in front of me was about girls in England. In what was one of the most prosperous countries on Earth, crippling poverty meant that girls were missing out on the education to which they were entitled. The British Government is routinely praised for upholding human rights and supporting those in need, but the injustice of students in the UK being unable to get an education because of their period stunned me. No matter how I looked at it, the injustice was overwhelming; why should periods hold anyone back from going to school, from realising their potential, and achieving their dreams?

It’s not fair that anyone should be at a disadvantage simply because of their biology. How can we even come close to achieving gender equality if one of our basic needs isn’t being acknowledged and met? And how could it be that no help was being offered to those who weren’t able to manage their period? It was as if society was dismissing them; saying they didn’t matter.

Until that point, I had never thought about how it would feel not to have a pad or tampon when I needed one. I’d never thought about it because I was lucky enough to have a bedside drawer stocked with a few packs on standby every month. I knew how unsettling and stressful it was to start a period in class and find I didn’t have a tampon in my bag, but I’d usually ask a friend, and there was always someone with a spare pad or tampon in their locker or rucksack. There was always a short term fix, and when I’d get home from school, there would be as many as I needed. But how many times could these pupils keep asking their friends for pads before it became clear that this wasn’t a one-off, before they’d have to admit that they couldn’t afford the cost of their period? I searched ‘period poverty in the UK’ and was taken aback to see that there were several reports online about girls using newspaper, old T-shirts, or socks stuffed with toilet roll as makeshift pads, just so they could go to school. That was the only alternative.

The first time I got my period, I was at school. I was 10. A few months before, I’d gone to a café with my mum and, over slices of cake, she’d told me that my period might arrive any day. We talked about how she’d started hers at a similar age, while playing in the sand on a family holiday in France. The signs that I’d be starting mine soon were most definitely there. But it arrived sooner than expected.

At primary school, after a music lesson, a boy in my class tapped me on the shoulder and told me quietly that there was blood dripping down my leg. I felt sick with embarrassment as I glanced down and saw a neat line of fresh blood working its way along my calf. I panicked: I’d started my period and had no idea what to do.

As I looked up, I could see him laughing, a crowd of boys looming just behind, peering over him to have a look. Every face in the class turned towards me. ‘I’ve cut my leg,’ I said quietly, my voice shaking with false calm. I walked slowly out of the room to the nurse’s office in case any movement might increase the flow. It was humiliating, and as soon as the nurse walked into the room, I started to cry. She was kind and wrapped an arm around my shoulder, but it was clear she didn’t want to mention the subject of menstruation. Instead, she called my mum and sent me home early that day, as if I’d come down with a temperature or a nasty bug. I was confused. I was the first of all my primary school friends to start their period, and, crushed by that first experience, kept it to myself. Many periods passed, and the entrenched shame and stigma surrounding periods only became increasingly evident as I got older.

Sitting at the kitchen table that morning, I read and reread the article about girls missing school, and began to understand why staying at home was the preferable option for most of them. Why put yourself through all of that – the laughing, the ridicule, the shame – when it was far easier to skip school and be close to a bathroom?

Make It Happen: How to be
an activist by Amika George,
published by HQ at
Harper Collins, is available
to buy now.