Scotland has taken a major step towards equality with the launch of a pilot project providing free sanitary products to women and girls from low income households.
At least 1,000 people are set to benefit over the course of a 6-month initiative in the city of Aberdeen. The announcement comes just months after news broke that girls in the UK are missing school because they are unable to afford the products they need to manage their periods. It was revealed that in addition to financial burden, girls face widespread stigma and shame associated with menstruation, leaving them unable to talk about this major part of their lives.
Since then, an ever-growing chorus of voices is calling on governments to prioritze tackling ‘period poverty’ and de-stigmatizing menstruation. Leading the way is Monica Lennon MSP, Scottish Labour’s Inequalities Spokesperson. Raising the subject in a cross-party debate back in 2016, Lennon felt frustrated by a disinterested response:
“As a feminist and new MSP I was angry that the Scottish Government was not prepared to do any work to investigate period poverty. That was last summer, and I’ve worked with grassroots activists and charities since then to lobby Ministers and make sure Parliament talks about menstruation and women’s health more generally.”
Fast-forward one year and Scotland looks set to be the first country in the world to provide sanitary products for free. If the next 6 months prove successful, the model could be replicated and results used to inform future policy. Lennon is optimistic that this first step could lead to a bolder leap:
“The pilot scheme will address an urgent need to get sanitary products to those who are struggling financially, but it is also an opportunity to change the way we talk and think about menstruation. We will never have an equal society if the experiences of women are silenced.”
The project will be managed by local social enterprise, Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE). Dave Simmers, CEO, explains why he jumped at the chance to be involved: “Anecdotal experience from our food bank and other support services suggested there was a real issue here. We are very aware that if you are low income and female then menstruation is going to present specific challenges.”
The sanitary products will be distributed in collaboration with local schools and partner organizations such as Scottish Women’s Aid. Marsha Scott, CEO, says:
“It is simply wrong that women and girls in Scotland and elsewhere are being forced to go without period products because they can’t afford them. Girls miss school, women miss work, the consequences reach into so many parts of their lives. For women experiencing domestic abuse, access to period products is further restricted when an abuser chooses to withhold either money and/or the products themselves as a way to control and humiliate a partner. It’s an issue of inequality, and inequality breeds domestic abuse.”
Scott acknowledges the immense power of stigma to hold women and girls back: “For a really long time periods and period poverty have been seen as an issue too embarrassing to talk about in public. All silence does is gives stigma a helping hand in stopping women from being able to access the products that they need. This puts women’s and girls’ mental and physical health at risk.”
For Monica Lennon MSP, there’s a simple way to change this reality – we have to be better at opening our mouths: “We hide behind so many euphemisms for menstruation. We need to get better at talking about menstruation in schools. Women can help other women to change the conversation. This campaign feels like the most natural thing to be raising and I take inspiration from other feminists across the world.”
Lennon’s next step is to launch a consultation on a Member’s Bill proposal to give all women in Scotland the right to access sanitary products for free, regardless of their income. She says, “My hope is that Scotland will be the first country to enshrine the right to access sanitary products in legislation. Menstruation is not a choice but providing safe and available menstrual healthcare is a choice a good government should make.”
This week, Scotland took a crucial step towards protecting the health of women and girls. Momentum around menstruation is building, and the silence – if not breaking – is certainly showing cracks.