The Current

'Menstruation is just health': Scotland becomes the first country to make period products freely available

On Tuesday, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products freely available. Matt Galloway spoke to Monica Lennon, the Member of Scottish Parliament who first introduced the bill, and Jana Girdauskas, founder of The Period Purse, about the bill and what Canada can take from it.

‘Periods don’t stop. Poverty is increasing. This is needed more than ever’: Scottish MP

Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free universal period products following the passing of the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday. (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

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For Monica Lennon, it was a victory she'd been fighting for nearly half a decade.

On Tuesday, Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. Local authorities will now have the legal duty to ensure period products such as tampons and sanitary pads are available to anyone who needs them.

"It just means the world to me that we now have legislation in Scotland that will ensure anyone who needs them will be able to access period products for free," the Scottish Labour MSP told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The bill says Scottish schools, colleges and universities must provide period products available in washrooms. The Scottish government will have the power to make other public bodies provide the products for free. 

Scotland is the first country to make these products freely available.

The point I made is that during a pandemic, periods don't stop, poverty is increasing, this is needed more than ever.- Monica Lennon

Lennon, who introduced the bill, said getting it to pass was a struggle, and she was concerned it wouldn't pass earlier this year.

"But the point I made is that during a pandemic, periods don't stop. Poverty is increasing. This is needed more than ever," she said. "And I'm really pleased that everyone in the Scottish Parliament pulled together regardless of their political party and we've, you know, pushed us through unanimously."

A hidden problem

Lennon says she first grasped how big an issue period poverty — the inability to access period products when needed — was in Scotland when she was first elected to Parliament in 2016.

"I realized that even in a country as rich and wealthy as Scotland, we had young girls who were missing out on education … [and] single parents who were having to go to food banks in order to get essential items, including tampons and pads." she said. 

Through her research, she also learned about the different ways period poverty can affect people who menstruate, such as "access for people with health conditions like endometriosis, [and] women and girls affected by domestic violence and abuse within the home."

Labour MSP Monica Lennon says the new legislation means 'the world to me.' (Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images)

Lennon said these factors the "hidden problem" had to be recognized on a parliamentary level.

"There's been so many grassroots organizations involved in the campaign that it just became impossible for Parliament to ignore the issue," she said.

With the bill passed, Lennon says that people who menstruate — especially young people — no longer feel embarrassed about their periods.

"I think the great thing is that lots of young people in school have said to me that no longer do they have to hide the tampon up their sleeve and sneak to the bathroom," she said. "They can go to the washroom and the products are available."

Tackling the stigma

In Canada, Jana Girdauskas says perceptions about periods have changed since she started The Period Purse, a non-profit organization that offers access to free menstrual products while reducing the stigma surrounding periods, four years ago. 

"People were scared to talk about periods," she told The Current. "Here we are on a national radio show saying 'menstruation.' Last year in the House of Commons, there was a speech made around period poverty and menstruation and the importance of it."

"It really shows that we are reducing the stigma and we can talk about it because it's such a normal thing that happens to half of us, and menstruation is really just health."

Campaigners and activists rally outside the Scottish Parliament in support of the Scottish government's Support For Period Products Bill on Feb. 25, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

That's not to say period poverty isn't a debated issue. On Feb. 26, the city of Hamilton voted to spend $121,000 on a pilot project to put free menstrual products in the washrooms of five recreation centres. 

Some councillors expressed concerns over possible hoarding and where the line should be drawn. 

"We have people who don't have access to toothpaste, toothbrushes," said Coun. Terry Whitehead. "Are we going to start providing that product in our rec centres to meet that very serious health need?"

And in 2019, Hamilton Coun. Esther Pauls said in a committee meeting that Canada "is not a third-world country," and even if women aren't prepared for periods, "we have ways" to deal with it.

Girdauskas believes these sorts of negative comments come from a place of naivety and privilege.

Poverty is the tip of the iceberg to menstrual equity and gender equity.-

"Poverty is the tip of the iceberg to menstrual equity and gender equity," she said. "So when we look at cost, we often hear this from people who don't menstruate or people who have been privileged enough to be able to afford it all the time."

That's why Girdauskas says that, along with providing these products to those who need them, education will continue to change people's perceptions of periods. 

"It's the education and the stigma that comes around periods and menstruation that we're really trying to change in that next generation," she said. "So when those young people are sitting on councils ... they can be open and accepting and see that this is a need that should be covered and that it is important."

Girdauskas hopes that Canada and other countries will follow Scotland's lead.

"[In Canada,] we talk so much about gender equity and women and girls and people who menstruate matter, but this is the time [for] action," she said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Alex Zabjek.

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