As It Happens

Scotland moves to make period products available for free

Monica Lennon, a member of Scottish Parliament who's pushing for women and girls to have free access to period products, says it's "really an issue of human dignity" and "about saying periods are normal."

'Maybe in 10, 20 years time we'll wonder what all the fuss was about,' says bill's sponsor

Scotland is moving toward becoming the first jurisdiction in the world to provide free universal access to period products. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Story Transcript

A member of Scottish Parliament who's pushing for women and girls to have free access to period products says it's "really an issue of human dignity" and "about saying periods are normal." 

Monica Lennon's legislation, The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, passed through its first stage on Tuesday with 112 votes in favour, none against, and one abstention. It now moves to a second stage, where significant amendments to the bill are expected.

The legislation would make tampons and sanitary pads available at designated public places such as community centres, youth clubs and pharmacies, at an estimated annual cost of more than $40 million. 

If it becomes law, it would make Scotland the first jurisdiction to make period products freely available.

Lennon, a Labour Party Member of Scottish Parliament, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the importance of this bill. Here's part of that conversation: 

Why do you want the Scottish government to give away free pads and tampons?

This is not about a giveaway. This is about creating free universal access to period products, which includes tampons, pads, and reusable options. 

It's an issue in Scotland because we know that period poverty exists. Too many women and girls are not able to afford period products when they need them and many have used alternatives which are not safe or hygienic. 

In the last couple of years in Scotland, we've rolled out a number of initiatives. So we now have free period products in every school, college, and university. So this bill would make sure that that becomes the law, because right now it's a policy. So we want that to continue. 

But beyond that we want to make sure for people who are not in school, who are not in education, that they access free period products also. 

It has already been, for a couple of years now … this policy for schools — for colleges and universities. How popular has it been so far? 

It has been very well received. I would say it is very popular.

People have used the scheme. They've benefited from it. And we've had good feedback that — in terms of well-being, and inclusion, and making sure young people participate in sport — it is really important. 

The [Educational Institute of Scotland], who are the biggest trade union for teachers in Scotland, really support it because up until the last couple of years, teachers were having to share their own tampons and pads with young people. So they told us it was an issue. 

Scottish Labour Party politician Monica Lennon, right, joins campaigners and activists during a rally outside Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It's going to cost, though, about $31 million US.… You say that you're trying to address the issue of poverty. Was it not possible to try and make it available to those who can't afford them, without making it universal?

So in 2016, when I was first elected to the Scottish Parliament, I investigated what period poverty is and who that affects. We heard about women and girls who were forced to go to food banks and homeless shelters to get period products. And they told us that they felt really embarrassed and really ashamed. 

The Scottish government took that on board and they ran a pilot scheme in Aberdeen and that was really well received.

But what women told the government was that they didn't want to be means-tested or asked lots of personal questions about their income, or how many products they need, and how heavy their period is, [and] how long their period lasts.

So we've come up with a system which we believe is free and universal to access. But in reality, most women have said they would only use it if they really had to use it.

Campaigners and activists hold signs during a rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday. (Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell)

Already in Scotland, we have a similar public health approach to free condoms which are available to anyone regardless of income. And the uptake of that is very modest. So we see that being the same for this.

But what we're also seeing in Scotland is the private sector and the third sector taking their own initiatives forward. 

Celtic Football Club in Glasgow were the first in the U.K. to introduce free period products in their toilets. Glasgow Airport also joined the campaign. So we're seeing the whole culture change in Scotland. 

I know there was opposition to this proposal in Scotland — people who said it would be open to abuse, if you're giving away free period products. And they said that people would take large quantities and try and resell them. Was there a concern that there would be some sort of a black market for cross-border tampons? 

It was one of the initial concerns raised by the Scottish government. And I suppose ministers have to be fiscally responsible, and think about different scenarios, and think about risk. 

But in the end, that concern has been sort of pushed aside and actually it was widely ridiculed. There was a concern that people might come over the border from England and take free products from Scotland and sell them at discounted rates. 

But actually … even though Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not regarded as a feminist icon ... in England they also now have free products in schools and colleges and there's a task force to look at period poverty. 

So actually across the U.K., in Scotland, England and Wales, we're seeing a real change — a real appetite for this. 

It's really an issue of human dignity, of equality, and actually about saying periods are normal. It's no big deal. But it is a big deal if you can't access the products. 

The rally at Scottish Parliament took place ahead of a vote on legislation that ensures women and girls of all ages have free access to period products. (Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell)

How confident are you that the bill will become the law?

I feel more confident after this week's debate and vote. It has been a journey for people, so I understand that some [members of Scottish Parliament] have had questions about the practicalities, about the cost. But they also recognize there's a cost of not doing this.  

We talked about women who have experienced toxic shock syndrome, people who have had to leave the workplace because they had blood on their clothing … because they couldn't get products in the workplace.  

I hope by the end of 2020 the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill will have passed and will become law. Maybe in 10, 20 years time we'll wonder what all the fuss was about because it's going to become so normal.


Written by Katie Geleff with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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