Scotland just showed how easy it is to end 'period poverty'

SCotland became the the first country in the world to enshrine the right to free menstrual products into law, in a vital step towards ending ‘menstrual poverty’. The Periodicals Act, which came into effect today after the Scottish Parliament unanimously approved the law in 2020, makes it mandatory for local authorities and educational institutions to provide products to anyone who needs them.

Activists tell TIME that by allowing women, girls and menstruating people to manage their periods healthily and effectively, the law both protects a basic human right and removes societal stigma.

Globally, around 500 million people who menstruate live in menstrual poverty – the inability to access menstrual products due to financial constraints. This has a wide range of implications, especially on health, as menstruating people are often forced to use inadequate makeshift objects to manage their periods.

In many poor countries it is believed that half of all women and girls they are sometimes forced to use items such as rags, grass and paper instead of sanitary napkins and tampons. The problem is not limited to poor countries –two-thirds of 16.9 million low-income women in the US could not afford menstrual products in the past year.

Read more: The Big Tampon Shortage in 2022: The Supply Chain Problem Nobody’s Talking About

That’s why Scotland’s period products law is so important, campaigners and lawmakers say. “It’s about showing, through practical policy, that we can make a difference and that women, girls and people who have periods can feel valued,” said Monica Lennon, a member of the Scottish Parliament who campaigned for the law.

While conducting early research on the issue in 2016, Lennon says she was shocked to find Scottish women were using toilet paper or rags – and missing school or work because they couldn’t afford period products. In some cases, Lennon adds, victims of domestic violence have been prevented from accessing products by controlling partners. She tried to tackle the problem in a “dignified way” – making the products as readily available as toilet paper in a public bathroom.

“Menstruation is normal,” she says, “and no one should ever be made to feel ashamed or that it’s dirty or should be hidden.” Lennon’s aim is to remove any societal barriers that menstruation can present – ​​“ it is about ensuring that everyone can take part in education, work, sport and other leisure activities. You shouldn’t give it up because you’re on your period,” she adds. In 2019, a research of 1,000 girls in the UK found that more students miss school because of a period than because of the flu or holidays.

Before today’s news, there had been years of progress in making old products more accessible in the UK and around the world. In January 2021, the United Kingdom, which consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,scrapped the so-called 5% VAT “tampon tax” applied to old products, which are considered luxury, non-essential items under EU law. The UK managed to ditch the levy after leaving the EU – and the bloc is currently considering a similar proposal to scrap the legislation in all member states. In August, Colorado became the latest US state to eliminate the tax. However, more work remains to be done as women in 30 US states are still subject to it.

Meanwhile, rising inflation fueled by the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic are making the need for free products more acute. According to Tina Leslie, founder of Freedom 4 Girls, a UK-based charity that fights menstrual poverty, the organization has seen a 23% increase in demand for the already thousands of free menstrual products it distributes to food banks each year. Bloody Good Period, another UK charity, saw a 150% increase in demand for products for free periods from May to June compared to the same time last year.

In such difficult economic times, Lennon argued that government action becomes more important. And following in Scotland’s footsteps doesn’t have to be expensive – lots of local Scottish areas piloted free products before the law passed and found it to be both a popular and inexpensive measure, she says.

Read more: Employers are beginning to adopt “menstrual leave” policies. Could it backfire?

A campaign called Make The Switch by Freedom4Girls offers an example of cutting costs by using free reusable products such as cups and washable pads for those who cannot afford them. Although these products cost more up front, they are more affordable and better for the planet in the long run. Menstrual cups can last up to 10 yearseliminating the need for countless disposable products.

Regardless, Lennon hopes Scotland’s Vintage Products Act serves as a “beacon of hope” for others around the world. “My vision has always been that Scotland will stay focused and become the first country in the world to do this, but we certainly won’t be the last.” In March, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed bill for similar legislation, and in 2021 New Zealand rolled out free periodicals in all schools.

Ultimately, it’s about normalizing an experience that about half of the world’s population will go through at some point in their lives, and starting a conversation. “It’s not just about intermittent poverty, it’s about intermittent dignity,” says Freedom4Girls’ Leslie.

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