Period Poverty: Has Scotland Spurred the Beginning of the End?

Carmen Brown Hernandez celebrates Scotland becoming the first country to make sanitary products free, and suggests why a lack of female leadership in other countries may prevent them from following suit.

Being a Scottish woman, countless people have approached me about Scotland being the first country to make sanitary products free. A lot of people are confused by it – and I really mean a lot.  Questions I’ve been asked have ranged from, “So will you just be able to walk into the supermarket and take some off the shelf?” to, “Wait, how does that even work?” – I’ve heard it all. So let’s talk about it. Let’s continue in the direction of destigmatising periods. 

On the 24th of November, there was a unanimous vote of 121 votes to write ‘The Sanitary Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill’ into legislation. This means that you should legally and readily be able to access sanitary products in any educational institution and any public building such as libraries, courts, and hospitals. The current understanding is that women’s restrooms in such places will be kept stocked up with products which are free to take. Something that remains unclear is how the system would work for transgender men who were assigned female at birth and continue to menstruate. 

Labour MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) Monica Lennon can be credited for pushing towards tackling period poverty. She has been campaigning for this since 2016. Her efforts have resulted in Scottish schools, colleges and universities providing free sanitary products for two years before the bill was voted on. 

When period poverty is mentioned, most people automatically think of girls in villages in Africa who have to take weeks off school simply because they cannot access sanitary products. What many don’t recognise is that it can happen a lot closer to home too. According to The Scotsman, over 137,000 children across the UK miss school each year because they can’t afford tampons and sanitary towels, and 1 in 10 girls say they have or are currently struggling with accessing sanitary products. 

One of the other biggest factors preventing complete widespread period dignity is, of course, the stigmatisation of periods. For a long time they have been considered an object of disgust, and not talking about it was simply the best way to avoid that unpleasantness. I’d say that not only will Scotland’s bill do wonders in terms of improving access to period products, but will also open up the discussion. On the day that it was voted on, every other headline I saw was about Scotland’s move to free period products – people were talking about it for once, periods were the object of discussion for men as well as women. This is undoubtedly a positive change to be celebrated, and I have appreciated the effort of cisgender men to talk about it. The men surrounding me have become less phased by the idea of periods, more accepting of it as a fully natural process. And it’s about time too. 

But as to whether this will cause a cascade of countries to follow suit? I’m less optimistic. The driving force for this new legislature came from women. Scotland is one of the 19 out of 193 countries to have a female head of state, and 92% of countries in the world do not even have a gender balanced cabinet. There are simply not enough women in positions of power. 

For cabinets with cisgender men at the forefront, period dignity is something that does not directly affect them. Because of this, it is unlikely that it will be a priority. Dr. Varina Tjon A Ten, a former parliamentarian in the Netherlands and a professor at The Hague University, argued that “Politicians don’t like this issue because it’s not sexy”. While Monica Lennon said she was “lucky enough” to never experience period poverty, being someone who menstruates helped her to identify with the struggle of those who have, and provided the motivation to fight for period dignity.

This is not to say that change is impossible. Things are going in the right direction in some places. In the United States, a country whose politics is largely controlled by cis men, there are already some states that require public schools to provide sanitary products. I’d love nothing more than to see cis men fighting to improve access to sanitary products around the world, but the reality is that the same passion for period dignity is hard to imagine without a woman or someone who menstruates leading it.

In light of this, I do hope I am one day proven wrong.

Artwork by Laura Cook.

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