Period poverty–when people in poverty are unable to afford sanitary products like pads and tampons–is on the rise. Indeed, anyone who has donated to a food bank or homeless shelter will know that sanitary products are always warmly welcomed. This is not surprising, given that women, non-binary, and trans people disproportionately bear the brunt of austerity cuts by the UK Government, it is no wonder that demand for sanitary products from food banks has increased.
Owing to the taboo nature of periods, conversations have only recently started on the impact and extent of period poverty. But with the support of coverage in national newspapers and its inclusion in documentary I, Daniel Blake, period poverty has finally made it onto the agenda–and Scotland is leading the way on abolishing it.
Feminist and Labour MSP, Monica Lennon, has taken control of the issue since her election last year. Thanks to her consistent inquiries, the Scottish Government has reassessed its priorities and, in July, launched a pilot scheme in Aberdeen which will see thousands of people in low-income households gain access to sanitary products for free. This is a big step forward from “The Government currently has no plans to introduce free access to feminine hygiene products”, said in answer to Lennon’s questions in August last year.
But Lennon wants to go further.
“By addressing period poverty head on, it will help overthrow the stigma around periods.”
Last month, she lodged a proposal for a bill to provide universal free access to sanitary products. This would introduce a duty for health boards to provide anyone who menstruates in Scotland with products, regardless of income. It would also see schools, colleges and universities dispense products in their toilets. It could make a very real positive change to the lives of millions.
By addressing period poverty head on, it will help overthrow the stigma around periods. In Scotland, the number of people who menstruate is estimated at around 1.3 million. It is not unhealthy, it is not abnormal and it is not gross–it is a fact of life and we need to start treating it like one.
Free products would signal the beginning of a more open discussion. This could have broader impacts on health, leading to people feeling more comfortable seeking medical advice when an abnormality is noticed. It may even lead to better ways of treating many of the issues that come with each period for some, such as migraines, cramps, and severe mood swings, all of which are currently underestimated and dismissed by medical professionals. More open discussions around periods could also allow us to discuss periods without gender binaries. It is, after all, not just women who menstruate.
“When we discuss girls not attending school because they are on their period, we tend to think of developing nations.”
Providing free sanitary products to young people could also have a positive impact on attainment in schools. When we discuss girls not attending school because they are on their period, we tend to think of developing nations when young women are hidden away for the duration of their time of the month. In reality, it happens in the UK all too often. Indeed, earlier this year BBC Radio Leeds spoke with several young girls who had done exactly this.
Across the country, attendance rates for girls in high school is slightly lower than that of boys. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds already face an attainment gap, but add to that the monthly stress of worrying whether your caregiver can afford to buy you tampons that week, and things get all the more bleak.
The problem extends beyond the school gates however, with many more people having to make the choice between sanitary products or their next meal. Refugees struggling to get by face loneliness and further segregation if they are unable to leave their homes. Being homeless and menstruating can restrict movement – stories of people having to stay close to toilets so they can replace toilet paper frequently are common. People in abusive relationships may have to rely on their partner to purchase the products, another way in which power can be abused to control victims.
“Free sanitary products ensures that half the population is not prevented from normal, everyday activity.”
This all paints a very sad picture of life in the UK today. With such wealth across our nation, poverty should be a thing of the past. Providing free sanitary products could be one step of many towards the extinction of poverty in our society. However, only Scotland is attending to the matter so far–though perhaps a successful trial can demonstrate to the UK Government and other devolved administrations that such a scheme would be worthwhile.
Whether targeted or universal, the provision of free sanitary products would help address a specific type of inequality that only plagues those of us who menstruate. It does not propose to overthrow poverty overall–much wider structural changes would be required for that–but it would promise extra support to ensure half of the population is not prevented from normal, everyday activity because of a normal bodily function.
I hope the UK Government follows Scotland’s lead and begins to look into a resolution to the issue. If you do too, please write to your MP to urge them to bring it up in Parliament.