“I was watching the news and I saw a story about how girls in the U.K. are missing school because they can’t afford pads and tampons," Amika George tells PEOPLE

By Erin Hill
September 25, 2018 08:30 PM

For the second year in a row, global leaders and activists will unite in N.Y.C. for the annual Goalkeepers event on September 25-26. In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF, the Goalkeepers Global Goals Awards on Tuesday will highlight a new generation of leaders who are addressing the world’s major challenges.

One of those emerging young leaders is 18-year-old Amika George, who is the recipient of The Campaign Award, which celebrates a youth-led campaign that has raised awareness or built a community in support of a youth-focused cause, inspiring action and creating change.

George, who lives in London with her parents and younger brother, is the founder of the #FreePeriods campaign, which aims to make sure that no girl in the U.K. is living in period poverty and also works to destigmatize the taboo around menstruation and calls upon big brands to do more. The campaign also seeks for girls on free school meals be granted free sanitary products.

Amika founded the campaign in April 2017 when she learned that many young women in the U.K. are unable to afford sanitary products.

“I was watching the news and I saw a story about how girls in the U.K. are missing school because they can’t afford pads and tampons,” George tells PEOPLE. “It’s not something I ever experienced or ever even heard of. I was shocked it was happening in the U.K. People associate period poverty with other countries, but it’s happening here. These girls were going to school using newspapers, socks, toiled paper — it really horrified me and it horrified me that the government wasn’t acting on it.”

In December 2017, George’s campaign co-organized a protest, which over 2,000 people attended. George’s petition to provide girls from low income families with sanitary products quickly gathered over 162,000 signatures.

Amika George
Courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“I thought about any time I had to miss school and how difficult it was to catch up. It’s a human right to get an education,” she says. “Being a teenager and on my phone and social media, I started a website. I spent the first couple of weeks working hard to get 20 signatures. After a couple of weeks, it started to take off and I had 280,000 signatures and a big protest.”

In March, the government gave almost $2 million in funds to address U.K. period poverty, but George is still fighting for a longterm solution.

“I’ve never done something quite this big and public. It’s been amazing. I’ve also experienced this real enthusiasm among young people through the campaign,” she says.

Another supporter in the cause is Meghan Markle, who spent a powerful week in India in January 2017 to learn about the issues and challenges the women and girls who live there face. In particular, she learned about the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation.

Meghan Markle
Tim Rooke/REX/Shutterstock

“Beyond India, in communities all over the globe, young girls’ potential is being squandered because we are too shy to talk about the most natural thing in the world,” she wrote in an essay. “To that I say: we need to push the conversation, mobilize policy making surrounding menstrual health initiatives, support organizations who foster girls’ education from the ground up, and within our own homes, we need to rise above our puritanical bashfulness when it comes to talking about menstruation.”

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George says she’s excited to see Meghan’s activism take center stage within the royal family.

“I think it’s amazing. It’s really incredible to see high profile people like her make such a huge impact. It’s amazing to see people like her standing up against causes they feel strongly about,” she says. “A lot of people are excited about her and her involvement in the royal family. I think bringing in some diversity is really important and something that everyone is really excited about — and that she’s an activist. I think it’s really special to see.”

George begins classes at the University of Cambridge in just one week, where she plans to continue her campaign.

“As long as it takes to get a response from the government,” she says. “We need a longterm solution in schools. That will remain the goal.”