OPINION | Bloody Good News: Scotland Tackles Period Poverty

Period poverty is a relatively unknown global public health crisis. 

Being unable to access period products prevents people from basic human dignity. Furthermore, the unaffordability of period products may: cause health problems, keep those who menstruate out of school, and force people to choose between other basics and period products.

Scotland is the first country in the world to make period products free for those who need them. The Period Products (Free Provision)(Scotland) Bill, proposed by Monica Lennon MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) was approved unanimously by MSPs on November 24 2020. Soon, it will become enshrined in law.

I, alongside many others, am delighted that Scotland is tackling period poverty, especially using such an inclusive approach. The Bill will make the service accessible to all who need it and give responsibility to local authorities (councils) and institutions to tailor the service to their population’s needs.  

Understanding Scotland’s Period Poverty

Period poverty, according to Engender (Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organization), is “being unable to afford sanitary products and therefore being pushed to the margins of society, unable to participate fully in public life.” 

Every month, many Scots (estimated at 250,000) have to stay home during their period, at the expense of work and leisure time, as they do not have access or enough period products. Some families even have to forfeit basics for themselves so that their children can have period products. Rising numbers of Scots living in poverty since the recession in 2008 has meant an increased reliance on food banks for necessities, including period products. 

The effects of period poverty can be felt sharply by Scotland’s homeless. Homelessness puts many in harmful situations for their physical well being and dignity. The added burden of a period, especially if people cannot access suitable period products, soap and hot water, can lead to infections and the potentially deadly Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). This condition is when staphylococcus or streptococcus bacteria enter the body and release harmful toxins. Although rare, the condition is frequently associated with tampons being left in longer than recommended (eight hours). This situation can affect people who do not have the option to change period products frequently. 

Plan International UK, a children’s charity, conducted research on period poverty in the UK. They found that one in ten girls could not afford period products and that 12% “had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues”. Due to this struggle, many missed school or college. This research from 2017 was the first comprehensive study conducted on the issue in the UK.  

The Scottish Approach

The so-called ‘Tampon Tax’ (5% VAT on period products) in the UK means that tampons and pads are deemed ‘luxury items’ under EU law. Since 2017, some UK supermarkets such as Tesco, have absorbed the 5% VAT on period products to try and help people. Although well-meaning, these approaches do not eliminate period poverty. As the UK is leaving the EU on December 31st 2020, the Tax will be scrapped. This is a positive step. However, cutting the ‘Tampon Tax’ is more of a symbolic move towards destigmatizing periods by acknowledging that period products are a necessity, rather than the means to eliminate period poverty. Irrespective of the Tax, period products are still unaffordable for those living with minimal or no monthly income. 

Since 2017, Scotland has made funding available for Scottish schools, colleges, and universities to provide free period products. The products are often available in bathrooms. This was the fundamental success of the project since the stigma surrounding periods can deter people from asking for help or speaking out about period problems. 

The purpose of the Bill (Period Products) is to ensure that the service is protected by law. Currently, institutes and public bodies are not obliged to provide products. Once legislated, the Bill will mean they have to offer free products and it will give the Scottish Government power to make “other public bodies provide” free products.  

Success is No Accident

Superficially, the Bill can appear vague. It states that the products are free for “people who need them” and does not give strict guidelines for implementing the service. However, I believe this is one of the real triumphs. The Bill’s flexibility guarantees that this service is for a broad group of people and can be tailored to suit the needs of different communities. 

The Bill stresses that period products are free for “people who need them” as opposed to just women. This inclusive language ensures that the products are for women, intersex, non-binary and trans folk. This was deliberate. Activists have advocated that inclusivity helps to make society more welcoming and makes bathrooms more accommodating, and therefore safer spaces for these folks. Acknowledging everyone who has periods helps to destigmatize menstruation. Furthermore, it helps encourage people to feel confident seeking help for, and talking about, reproductive health needs

Beyond inclusivity, the Bill emphasizes that the enablers of the service are in control of its successful implementation. It highlights two routes that the service will take. Firstly, the products will be available in educational institutions and public service bodies for those who study and work there, respectively. Secondly, local councils must make period products attainable for those who need them in their local communities. 

The triumph of this approach is that “local authorities and community groups” as well as institutions can tailor the service to their local needs. Rather than implementing strict guidelines, the Bill states that providers must ensure the service meets the local population’s needs, that there is a variety of products, and that people can obtain the products “reasonably easily and with reasonable privacy”. Beyond this, the Bill merely specifies that the service must be widely publicized. 

At the Bill’s inception, a wealth of information was collected from Scottish people and businesses about how the service should operate and be implemented. This outcome-driven focus, led by the providers and recipients of the service, is explicit in the Bill. The bottom-up approach of giving the responsibility to councils and institutions to support their local communities aims to facilitate local cooperation. In turn, this communication should enable the service to evolve to suit the needs of different communities over time. 

A Bright Future

Scotland’s decision to tackle period poverty is truly noteworthy. 

Whilst the changes may seem small they will have a large scale effect. Scotland is the first country in the world to make tackling period poverty a legally-binding obligation. The successes of some Scottish institutions providing free period products since 2017 is evident. These changes enabled more people to gain period products with dignity and it encouraged Scotland to examine the issues and possible solutions for period poverty, particularly with an inclusive approach. Once the Bill is legalized, free period products will be accessible for even more people. 

Furthermore, due to the results of Scotland tackling period poverty, the neighbouring countries of England and Wales have introduced similar schemes to offer free period products to young people in education. Northern Ireland is also beginning the process of making period products free in schools. In the last few weeks, Monica Lennon has been in touch with Finnish ministers about how to tackle period poverty in Finland

Whilst Scotland is the first country to tackle this issue in law, I believe this Bill marks a truly hopeful first step on the path to eliminating global period poverty. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Phoebe Williams
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Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.

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