Will the world follow in Scotland’s footsteps?

, by Elsie Haldane

Will the world follow in Scotland's footsteps?

Scotland has recently become the first country in history to offer free sanitary products to all. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed unanimously by the Scottish parliament on 24th November, requires local authorities to ensure that items such as tampons and sanitary towels are available to “those that need them”. Scotland has previously committed to providing free products in schools, colleges, and universities, as well as funding projects to provide sanitary provisions to low-income houses. Effective legislation on free and available resources liberates those who menstruate, stopping them from missing school or work because of their period, or risking their health. The passing of Scotland’s recent bill is a landmark step in the country’s dedication to ending period poverty, and a display of what can be achieved when governments treat period poverty as a priority.

The initiative received backing from every party in the Scottish parliament, despite previous concerns about deliverability and cost of the scheme. When the legislation came before parliament in February, the Scottish National Party backed the bill in principle but expressed concerns over the cost, estimated to be at £8.7 million a year, with some arguing that it should be a means-tested scheme rather than a universal one. Member of the Scottish Parliament Monica Lennon, leader of the campaign, argued that means-testing the distribution of period products would only further stigmatise those who needed them. The SNP also faced significant pressure from their own activists, as well as trade unions and charities. After government amendments to the bill were made, it has now been accepted by all Scottish political parties.

There is no nation in the world that has not been struck by period poverty. It is well-researched in countries outside Europe, but within the continent research has been scarce, owing perhaps to limited awareness of the issue. A start has been made, however: according to Plan International Research, 10% of girls in the UK have at some point been unable to afford sanitary products, while 15% of girls have struggled to afford sanitary products. In France, 1.7 million women were affected by period poverty in 2019, according to a survey carried out by the French Institute for Public Opinion (IFOP). While research on period poverty in Europe is only just beginning, the extent of general poverty across the continent is well known. It is inevitable that as long as poverty exists, people who menstruate face the additional problem of period poverty.

In general, women tend to experience a higher likelihood of living in poverty than men do, facing an increased chance of being limited to low-wage work, more commonly having to take care of children and more often facing discrimination and health issues. The effect of period poverty is an oft-overlooked factor in the existing gender poverty gap, and this has clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic. A study by UN Women and the UN Development Programme estimated that globally, next year there will be 118 women aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty for every 100 men in the same situation. The increase in poverty created by the pandemic has undoubtedly affected rates of period poverty as well: according to Bloody Good Period, a British charity that supplies food banks, homeless shelters and other organisations with sanitary products, the need for accessible products has increased 6 times since before the pandemic hit the UK. The prevalence of period poverty around the world shows us the impact and potential that effective legislation has.

Other countries are yet to catch up with Scotland, but have been improving their stance. Next year will be the first year in which the so-called “tampon tax”, a 5% VAT (the tax charged to many consumable goods and services in the UK), will be scrapped in all of the UK, and this year England began implementing a period product scheme in secondary schools and colleges. France has been providing free products in secondary schools since October, and in 2018 Spain provided 400,000 women and girls living in period poverty with free products. France, Spain, Germany, Poland and Austria have also lowered the rate of tax on menstrual products. Ireland and Malta are the only countries in Europe that do not tax period products at all. Despite these improvements, in some parts of the EU the tax on these items is still very high. For example in Hungary, those who need period products are charged 27% tax, while countries such as Denmark, Croatia and Sweden charge 25% on menstrual products.

It is important that we note that while the introduction of free period products is a wonderful step in the right direction, there is a lot further to go in terms of ending period poverty across Europe and the world. One of the many difficulties that arise in tackling this issue, and one of the most powerful, is stigma. Reducing this may be possible through education. Legislation must be improved across the continent to improve education of menstrual health, and to include everyone in the learning experience, rather than quietly taking girls aside which only serves to increase shame and embarrassment. It is also vital that those who menstruate have access to hygienic and private toilet facilities, and this must be enforced through legislation.

But if we are truly serious about eradicating period poverty, in our own nations and across the world, surely the most important thing we can do is challenge our own cultures and attitudes. Increased awareness of period poverty has propelled the issue into the headlines, but only in the past few years, and as a result the topic is still one shrouded in shame, often treated with a lack of urgency. It is important to see the issue as individual and with individual challenges, but also as part of the wider issue of general increased poverty across the world. The major upheaval of collective attitudes that we need requires time and commitment, and will need to be tackled in all areas of our lives, and include all people. Only then will we have a hope of eradicating period poverty for good. In the meantime, we can get closer and closer to that goal through initiatives like Scotland’s, and hope that the rest of the world begins to copy it.

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