On the 24th November Scotland made history in the fight against ‘period poverty’ by being the first country in the world to make the provision of sanitary products in public spaces mandatory. The bill’s aims of tackling ‘period poverty’ through the universal provision of menstrual products whilst simultaneously putting an end to the stigma surrounding menstruation are a necessary component in the fight for gender equality. With this historic piece of legislation reigniting the ‘period poverty’ debate across the globe, the question of how long until other countries follow suit is on everyone’s mind.
‘Period poverty’ refers to the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t an issue confined to the world’s poorest countries. According to Plan International UK, one in ten girls cannot afford to buy menstrual products, while one in seven have struggled to afford them. Whilst these figures are shocking, they do not even take into account the effects COVID-19 has had. The economic fallout of the pandemic has hit women especially hard. This coupled with the extra financial burden of a period, which is on average £4,800 in a lifetime in the U.K., has left many women being forced to use alternatives like newspaper and bread. These options are dehumanising and can lead to life-threatening infections. No one should have to choose between bleeding through their trousers or feeding themselves and their children. This reinforces the misogynistic narrative that sanitary products are a privilege and not a necessity. The Scottish bill will attempt to dismantle this narrative by ensuring arrangements are in place for “anyone who needs them” to access period products with “reasonable dignity”.
The bill also tackles the shame surrounding menstruation. The stigma over menstrual bleeding and women’s bodies has had a detrimental effect on girls’ education around the world and in the UK. Over the course of a year 137,000 children in the UK miss school because of period poverty, and the shame that accompanies this. If a child missed school every time they have their period they are typically set 145 days behind their fellow students. This has resulted in an educational attainment gap between girls and boys, crucially affecting a child’s ability to succeed. Exposure to sanitary products in the same way as to hand sanitiser or condoms will hopefully go a long way in normalising menstruation. The bill is therefore a fundamental step forward in changing cultural and societal attitudes to not only menstruation, but the way we treat women’s bodies more generally.
Whilst Scotland is the first country to make these changes, it is by no means the last. Scotland’s victory is not just symbolically important; it has practical implications too by providing a blueprint for other countries.
Indeed, it looks as if the other countries in the Union are following close in Scotland’s footsteps. In England, local authorities have already started offering free sanitary products, and by the end of the year, the government promised the provision of these in all schools and universities. The abolition of the oppressive ‘tampon tax’ has also been scrapped as of 1st January 2021. The ‘tampon tax’, also known as the ‘pink tax’, since it is a form of gender price discrimination, is a charge paid on sanitary products due to their status as a luxury good. In countries such as Hungary and Sweden, it is as high as 27% and 25%, respectively. Rishi Sunak announced in the 2020 government budget that after the U.K formally leaves the EU at the end of this month, the period tax, which the E.U requires to be at a minimum of 5%, will be scrapped. In the U.S, 12 states have already repealed the tax and with the new, more progressive, Biden-Harris administration, 2021 will hopefully see more states follow suit. The movement is not one just confined to the Global North. The movement towards ending period poverty is a truly global one, and thanks to grassroots activism and political lobbying, countries such as Columbia, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda have also abolished taxes on menstruation.
The grassroots activism that inspired many across the world to already make significant steps towards ending ‘period poverty’ will hopefully be reignited by Scotland’s victory. It already appears as if it has sparked a global conversation and reinforced the message that menstrual dignity is not a luxury, it is a human right. The poverty caused by COVID-19 adds impetus to this fight. I am therefore hopeful for the future and grateful for the activism and cross-party work in Scotland, which has allowed this bill to pass, acting as a catalyst for a change.
Illustration by Adeline Zhao.