A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

The fight to end period poverty

3 min
#FreePeriods activists march through London.
Courtesy of Amika George
Amika George is a Gates Foundation Goalkeeper and received the 2018 Goalkeeper Campaign Award.
My campaign, #FreePeriods, was born the day I read an article reporting that girls in the United Kingdom were missing school because they were too poor to have a period. I learned that girls unable to afford pads and tampons were resorting to making their own makeshift period protection from toilet paper or newspaper—or simply staying home and falling behind on their education. It horrified me that a normal, natural biological process was holding girls back from harnessing their potential and realizing their dreams and aspirations.
This challenge extends far beyond the UK. Across the globe, period poverty is denying women and girls the most basic and fundamental of human rights—and the stakes are high. When adolescent girls in rural, resource-poor environments are forced to drop out of school, they risk being trapped in the clutches of poverty and deprivation for generations.

It’s not only that periods can be difficult and expensive to manage. It’s that, despite being part of the lives of half the global population, periods are also difficult to talk about.

In many cultures, there is a deeply entrenched conspiracy of silence around menstruation. According to The Lancet, a UNICEF study revealed that one in three girls in South Asia had no knowledge of menstruation before their first period, and in Iran, 48% of girls thought periods were a disease. We need better education in schools, for both girls and boys, and we need to teach young people how to speak about periods in empowering language.

Yet, there is hope, and there are solutions. Some countries are implementing bold and progressive measures in their bid to tackle period poverty: Kenya has repealed tax on menstrual products, and in 2018, pledged to distribute pads to all schoolgirls in its public schools. Kerala, in Southern India, is providing free period protection for schoolgirls in an effort to keep girls in school when they menstruate. Scotland has made history by being the first country to provide free and universal access to menstrual products in all schools, colleges and universities.
of girls in Iran thought periods were a disease, a UNICEF study found.
A poster next to a stoplight at the #FreePeriods march in London.
Courtesy of Amika George
Such pioneering approaches to alleviating period poverty signify a pivotal moment in the fight for menstrual equity. What’s more, the conversation is shifting, and periods are starting to be discussed in the media with less shame and apology.

Period euphemisms are being replaced with frank, and often disarmingly honest accounts of menstruation. Just last week, a film about periods won an Oscar, despite a male member of the Academy saying he wouldn’t be voting for a film he finds “icky for men.”

In another promising development, the UK government announced last month that all schools will start offering menstrual health education. These signs of progress are important, and they are proof that activism works.

Moving forward, we need to shake off the shame bound up with menstruation, equip girls with the knowledge that periods are a natural part of our transition into womanhood, and empower more activists to speak out.

In order to get more people talking about period poverty, we need to help them get comfortable talking about periods in the first place. If we care about equipping girls to reach their full potential, the worst thing any of us can do is stay silent.