Last year, when I was 17, I was stunned to hear of a hidden problem affecting thousands of girls in the United Kingdom -- "period poverty." Girls as young as 11 were routinely skipping school, or resorting to improvising with socks stuffed with tissue and newspaper, all because they couldn't afford menstrual products.
I was disgusted this was happening right under my nose but even more appalled that the government had failed to take action to end the problem.
Period poverty is, undoubtedly, a product of the patriarchy. It is unjust that a natural, biological process was inhibiting the educational progress of these girls, preventing them from achieving their goals and ambitions, and that our male-dominated Parliament was refusing to act.
So I launched a campaign called #FreePeriods. It started as an online petition to call for the government to provide free menstrual products for girls from low-income families. I then began writing about period poverty, giving media interviews, telling everyone who would listen how girls were being held back because they bleed and happen to be poor.
As the campaign grew, I started to question the archaic perception of periods as a source of shame and embarrassment. Misogyny has meant that periods are ubiquitously tabooed, belittled and euphemized.
This is so wrong. We need to celebrate our periods, unapologetically, and it's incredibly important to involve boys and men (and others who don't have periods) in the conversation, if we want to overcome the stigma that shrouds menstruation.
The message spread and slowly started to creep into public consciousness, and initial curiosity about the campaign soon led to media coverage. Clearly, I was not alone in condemning period poverty, and there was widespread disbelief that this was happening in one of the most prosperous, economically advanced nations on Earth.
We decided to capitalize on this momentum by organizing the #FreePeriods peaceful protest. The aim was to gather together as many people as possible outside Downing Street to shout about the silence. Publicizing the campaign using social media, we called out to all young people, urging them to make their voices heard on behalf of every girl who felt she had no voice. The word spread quickly, and interest grew.
On December 20, 2,000 people braved the cold to stand united against period poverty. Brits of all ages and genders had assembled, dressed in red, and waving banners emblazoned with period puns. As they chanted, "What do we want? Tampons! When do we want them? Now!" it was clear that the cry for change was loud and irrepressible. We were energized, mobilized and ready to disrupt the status quo.
In March, the government announced that, for the first time, it would allocate a portion of the funds from taxing period products to an organization that seeks to help address period poverty. As a result of our collective activism, the government listened, and moving forward, young people will be better able to access menstrual products through charities and in schools.
But our fight is far from over. And period poverty is still rife in the UK and globally. Plan International UK, a children's charity, has found that 1 in 10 British girls have been unable to afford menstrual products until now, and UNESCO has revealed that girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss up to 20% of schooldays because of menstruation, while one-third of girls in South Asia report missing school every month during their periods.
We will continue to fight until the government agrees to implement a statutory pledge to end period poverty for good, as the Scottish government has recently done. Until we are certain that no girl will ever miss a day of school due to her period again. Until access to menstrual products is treated as a universal human right, not a privilege.
I am so honored to be working with Goalkeepers, the campaign to accelerate progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and to be receiving the Global Goals Campaign award during UN Week in New York. I hope that this platform will enable period poverty to be recognized by governments worldwide, and that global leaders will take action to eradicate it from their societies.
Clearly, #FreePeriods has become much larger than the 17-year-old girl who started a petition from her bedroom. Its success, thus far, is a testament to how a message can resonate with the masses and proves the power that young people possess.
Despite criticism from adults who complain about young people spending too much time on their phones, the #FreePeriods campaign has proven that teenagers can truly bring about change by utilizing social media and taking to the public square. I now know that young people are more politicized, passionate and engaged than ever before -- and that this is only the beginning.
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