When she was picked as the youngest recipient of the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year for pushing the UK government to provide free period products in schools and colleges, Amika George found herself in a spot.
“It wasn’t an easy one for me with the Honours system’s association to the (British) Empire and our Colonial past,” says the 21-year-old History student at the University of Cambridge whose parents hail from Kerala in India.
But then, she decided “it’s really important for me to show that young people have power in our voices, much more than we realise”. “We have often been overlooked in political spaces, and the MBE shows that we are slowly being recognised as real changemakers who can influence government,” she says.
“That change doesn’t have to be done from within the walls of Westminster, or the White House, or the Indian Parliament. Anyone can orchestrate change. I would like young people of colour to see that we are being recognised, and that if we are willing to jump from a place of safety and rise up, we can create something better,” she says.
George was picked for an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), which is the third-ranking award on the list, in education for her campaign against period poverty, #FreePeriods.
She started the campaign at the age of 17 — it made her angry that “there were girls in the UK who were missing school every month because they were too poor to afford period products”.
Following her efforts, which included starting a petition and meeting with ministers, the UK government in 2020 funded educational institutes to provide free period products. Free Periods is now a not-for-profit organisation, which continues to fight “against the taboo and shame surrounding menstruation”.
George says she accepts the award “on behalf of my family and community who have silently had to tolerate racism over decades, who felt like they never fitted in, who never felt British enough, who never felt seen”.
While Amika and her brother were born and brought up in the UK, her father Kishore hails from Pathanamthitta and mother Nisha from Kozhencherry.
“We’re really pleased,” says Nisha. “We have seen Amika work hard, juggling between academics and her campaign over the last four years. She was single-minded about achieving a goal, and we’re happy that she has been recognised this way.”
As parents, Nisha says, they felt protective of Amika “because she just put herself out there, talking about something that most people feel uncomfortable with”.
This year, 1,129 people were named for an Order of the British Empire award, of which 50 per cent are women, and 15 per cent are of an ethnic minority. “The Birthday Honours List 2021 is the most ethnically diverse list to date,” a press release by the UK government states.
Says George: “I couldn’t be prouder today to be a young British Indian.”