Amika George is having quite the week.
This weekend, she’ll pack up her life and move to the UK’s Cambridge University, where she will study history. She starts college after being honored in New York this week with the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers award, acknowledging the world-changing impact of a campaign she launched, at 17, to end “period poverty.”
Her journey to activism started only last year, in March 2017, when at 17 she learned that one in 10 girls in the UK missed school days every month because they couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene supplies. In fact, she found out more than a third of missed school days could be attributed to that, even in a developed country like the UK. “They would miss school, or go to school and use tissues, newspapers, T-shirts and socks—whatever they can find,” she told Quartz. “I thought that was so wrong. It made me angry.”
George wasn’t alone in having no idea something like that could be happening in her rich county; she spoke with friends and family and realized no one of them knew about the problem. Most teen girls (and grown-up women) likely would dread a conversation (public or otherwise) that requires saying the words “period,” “tampon,” “pads.”
But George was undaunted. “Being a teenager and always being on the phone and social media,” she said, “I thought the best way was to get online and start a petition—and I called it #FreePeriods.”
George, who speaks at a rapid clip, tells this story with the practical, charismatic energy of the doer. It’s no surprise that, with the support of the youth-led activist organization The Pink Protest, she got 180,000 people to sign her petition and ask prime minister Theresa May that girls who qualify for free school meals be given free sanitary products, too. This is a policy modeled after places—such as Kenya, India’s Kerala state, and Scotland—that have had success tackling period poverty.
In December 2017, 2,000 demonstrators—male and female—stood outside May’s residence, wearing red, shouting about periods, the need to normalize them, and the need to acknowledge their management as a basic need. George learned a lot about periods working on the campaign. They are, as she says, “actually quite amazing and incredible—a process that allows us to reproduce. We wouldn’t be here without periods, that is actually very empowering thing that needs to be celebrated.”
Though she says she won’t stop until the #FreePeriods policy is adopted in the UK—and then around the world, in countries where the issue is even more serious—George’s campaign, which eventually worked with the social-media activism organization The Pink Protest, has already gotten tangible results. Several members of the UK parliament support her cause, and the government invested £1.5 million in initiatives to address period poverty.
The enthusiasm with which she talks about the often-taboo subject of menstruation is what seems truly game changing. She likens the December #FreePeople protest to a celebration: “People were celebrating, they were wearing red, guys as well, and they were shouting about tampons!”
Accepting her award with a poise most adults would envy, she revisited that celebratory feeling, sharing words that every woman should say out loud:
We all have a responsibility to inspire the next generation, and to teach them the power of periods, this amazing natural process that allows us to put life into this world. So, enough with the shame, embarrassment, and stigma that enshrouds menstruation, enough with euphemizing and belittling periods, sticking tampons up our sleeves, hiding rags and pads in our bras!
There is no way to end the economic disadvantages caused by having a period as long as we—women in particular—are embarrassed about having one.
So, indeed: Enough. Enough with the shame.