On Tuesday 24 November, 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make free period products available to all menstruating people. This landmark step in the global fight against period poverty was met with wide celebration by campaigners and activists, including Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has been fighting for the cause since 2016.
Period poverty describes menstruating people not being able to afford period products, such as pads and tampons, and therefore having to go without, or fashion them out of unsuitable materials. Some people find themselves wearing pads or tampons for longer than they should because they are unable to afford to change them as frequently, which can lead to infections. 10% of girls in the UK have been unable to afford period products; 15% have had difficulty affording them; and 19% have switched to less suitable products because of cost, according to the BBC. All of this can have a huge impact on wellbeing and can cause young people to miss school or university because of shame.
Scotland had already become the first nation to introduce free tampons and pads at schools, colleges and universities in 2018, and England followed suit last year. In one school, it was found that attendance rose by a third after free period products were made available. Scotland’s new bill will ensure that the opportunity to live a life free of worrying about menstrual hygiene is extended to every menstruating person in the nation.
During the campaign for free period products, many activists pointed out that condoms have been freely available for decades, largely as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Period products are just as essential as condoms, and many activists felt that they were long overdue being accessible for those who needed them. Scotland’s bill empowers those who menstruate to protect themselves each month and ensure their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Rates of period poverty have risen considerably during the pandemic as many people have found themselves less financially stable. As Monica Lennon pointed out, “periods don’t stop for pandemics”, and this year many more women, girls, trans men and non-binary people found themselves unable to fund the monthly cost of a period, which can be up to £8 a month in the UK. Bloody Good Period, a charity which supplies period products to food banks, support groups and homeless shelters, supplied almost 6 times the amount of pads and tampons than they would normally from March to November this year, including to NHS frontline workers. The rise of homelessness during the pandemic (alerts of rough sleepers by members of the UK public rose by 36% from April to June) has also increased the need for free period products. Tina Leslie, who works for the period poverty charity Freedom4Girls in Leeds, says she is alarmed by the sharp increase in period poverty she has witnessed: “It’s either you have pads or you have a loaf of bread. It’s that bad at the moment.”
Of course, periods are not just a UK issue. Many people in less economically developed countries do not have access to affordable period products. For example, approximately 12% of menstruating women in India cannot afford period products. Just as in the UK, this leads to educational attainment gaps: 1 in 10 girls in Africa are missing school due to lack of period products or private spaces to change pads or tampons. In the fight for gender equality, period poverty is one of the key things holding women back; shame leads to missing education or work, which leads to economic consequences. Charities, such as ActionAid, provide menstrual products to those in need across the globe, as well as training girls and women to make their own reusable menstrual pads, by providing hygiene packs in humanitarian crises, and working to eradicate shame surrounding menstruation through education.
Very much closer to home, on Exeter’s campuses, there are various student-led initiatives to alleviate the pressures of period poverty. Feminist Society started putting free period products in the gender-neutral bathrooms in the Forum at the end of last year, and this has been a brilliant way of ensuring that those who need them can access them without the potential shame of asking. PeriodPovertyExe is focusing on educating students, hoping to spark conversations and break down taboos, sharing facts and figures and ways to help the movement on their page. They also sell t-shirts and tote bags to fundraise for Sanitree, a social enterprise based in Edinburgh and Jaipur who are helping the period poverty fight. In the new year, they hope to be collecting for St Petrocks, and organising fundraising events.
One of the most important things we can do is break the taboo around menstruation, which will lead to more engaged and productive conversations about period poverty. Scotland’s bill comes as a wonderful reminder of what is possible if we work hard to keep period poverty front-and-centre in the fight for global gender equality.
- @whatsperiodpoverty – an Instagram account set up by Exeter students as part of the University’s Human Rights Day Project, with lots of shareable infographics
- Bloody Good Period – a charity whose aim is to educate and deliver period products to those in need
– Caitlin Barr
Featured Image Source: Pexels