Scotland has become the first country in the world to legally enshrine the right to free period products, in a vital step toward ending “period poverty.” The Period Products Act, which came into force today after Scotland’s parliament unanimously approved the law in 2020, compels local governments and educational institutions to provide products to anyone who needs them.
TIME is told by activists that the law allows women and girls to control their period healthily and effectively. This protects fundamental human rights and eliminates social stigma.
Globally, around 500 million people who menstruate live in period poverty—the inability to access menstrual products because of financial constraints. This has widespread implications for health as many menstruating women are forced to use ineffective makeshift products to manage their periods.
In many poor countries, it’s estimated that half of all women and girls are sometimes forced to use items like rags, grass and paper instead of menstrual pads and tampons. The issue is not just confined to poor countries—two-thirds of the 16.9 million low-income women in the U.S. could not afford menstrual products in the past year.
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That’s why Scotland’s period product law is so important, activists and legislators say. “It was about showing, through practical politics, that we can make a difference, and that women, girls and people who menstruate can feel valued,” says Monica Lennon, a member of parliament in Scotland who campaigned for the law.
While conducting early research into the issue in 2016, Lennon says she was shocked to find that Scottish women were using toilet paper or rags—and missing school or work because they were unable to afford period products. Lennon also said that some domestic abuse victims could not access products due to their controlling partners. She sought to tackle the issue in a “dignified way”—making products as readily available as toilet paper in a public bathroom.
“Periods are normal,” she says, “and no one should ever be made to feel ashamed, or that it’s dirty or needs to be hidden away.” Lennon’s goal is to remove all barriers to society that having a period may present—”it’s about making sure that everyone can participate in education and work and sport and other leisure pursuits. You shouldn’t have to give that up because you’re on your period,” she adds. A survey of 1000 girls from the U.K. in 2019 found that school was missed more often by students who were on their period than those with flu and vacation.
Today’s news builds on years of progress in making period products more accessible in Britain and around the world. In January 2021, the U.K.—which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—scrapped the so-called 5% V.A.T. “tampon tax” applied to period products, which are considered luxury, non-essential items under E.U. law. The U.K. was able to abandon the levy after leaving the E.U.—and the bloc is currently considering a similar proposal to scrap the legislation across all member states. Colorado was the most recent U.S. state that eliminated the tax in August. More work remains to be done, however—women in 30 U.S. states are still subject to it.
Increasing inflation due to the conflict in Ukraine as well supply chain problems linked with the COVID-19 pandemic have made the need for free periods more urgent. Tina Leslie (founder of Freedom 4 Girls), a U.K. charity fighting period poverty has reported a 23% increase on the number of products for free that the organization distributes annually to food banks. Another U.K. charity Bloody Good Period saw a 150% rise in the demand for period products between May and June, compared with last year.
Lennon believes that governments must act in these difficult economic times. And following in Scotland’s footsteps doesn’t have to be expensive—many local Scottish areas piloted free products before the law was enacted and found it to be both a popular and low-cost measure, she says.
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A campaign called Make The Switch by Freedom4Girls offers further means to keep costs down by using free reusable period products, such as cups and washable pads, for those who can’t afford them. These products are not only more expensive upfront, but they also last longer and are better for the environment. These cups are durable and can even last for 10 years.
Regardless, Lennon hopes that Scotland’s Period Products Act serves as a “beacon of hope” to others around the world. “It’s always been my vision that Scotland would stay focused and become the first country to do this in the world but that certainly we wouldn’t be the last.” In March, the Northern Irish Assembly passed a bill for similar legislation, and in 2021, New Zealand rolled out free period products in all schools.
Ultimately, it’s about normalizing an experience that around half of the world’s population will go through at some point in their lives, and opening up a conversation. “It’s not just about period poverty, it’s about period dignity,” says Freedom4Girls’ Leslie.
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