Monica Lennon: How I’ll make period poverty history

In an exclusive column written for The Big Issue, MSP Monica Lennon sets out how her groundbreaking bill can end period poverty in Scotland

Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour MSP for Central Scotland, is on a mission to introduce world-leading legislation on the right to access free sanitary products. Here, Lennon explains why Scotland must act to end period poverty…

Menstruation is normal, yet it’s still an awkward topic for many people. Whispered conversations about something as normal as periods makes it difficult to conduct a public examination of how well society is meeting the needs of those who menstruate. In Scotland this is changing, and thanks to political and grassroots campaigning, periods are becoming a hot topic in the Scottish Parliament and in the media too.

If you are trying to survive on a low income, are homeless or have certain health conditions, talking about and managing your period isn’t just awkward, it can be impossible and messy

Periods do affect people differently but women, girls and trans people who experience menstruation, all have a common need for access to sanitary products.

If you are trying to survive on a low income, are homeless or have certain health conditions, talking about and managing your period isn’t just awkward, it can be impossible and messy. I’ve been using my voice to raise this in the Scottish Parliament ever since I was elected last May.  Period poverty, which can lead to people not changing sanitary products frequently enough or improvising with rags, is both humiliating and unsafe.

Having challenged the Scottish Government and encouraged them to respond to this unmet need, the conversation around access to sanitary products has really opened up and a wide coalition of campaigners are calling for action.

This week I’ve launched a consultation on a proposal for a Member’s Bill to put a duty on Scottish Minister’s to introduce a system of free universal access to sanitary products.  I’m also proposing a duty on schools, colleges and universities to provide free sanitary products in their toilets.

You can’t have a world class education system if students are skipping class when they have their period. They should be able to visit the toilet safe in the knowledge that sanitary products are freely available.  In some schools, emergency sanitary products can be accessed from office staff. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hard to imagine pupils being expected to request toilet paper in this way.

In Scotland, only prisoners have the right to free sanitary products

South Lanarkshire College has recognised the impact on its students.  The college has introduced free sanitary products in campus toilets as well as the option for extra supplies to be taken home from the Student Association. The college is setting a great example to the rest of the education sector.

Last summer New York City passed a bill which introduced free sanitary products in schools, homeless shelters and prison. In Scotland, only prisoners have the right to free sanitary products.  When I quizzed the Scottish Government a year ago on what interest it was taking in the affordability and accessibility of sanitary products, Shona Robison, the SNP Health Secretary, confirmed there were no plans to examine this. For those struggling, the Health Secretary suggested that food banks may be able to help but I don’t accept that the ad-hoc kindness of strangers is a substitute for a state-funded safety net that ensures no one is left behind.

So in March on International Women’s Day, I announced I’d be introducing proposals for the right to access free sanitary products in Scotland.

In a breakthrough moment, I secured cross-party support to lead the first-ever Member’s debate on period poverty in the Scottish Parliament and I’ve taken every opportunity to press the Scottish Government to take action, including at First Minister’s Questions.  The recent announcement by the Scottish Government to introduce a pilot-scheme in Aberdeen providing people on low income with sanitary products shows this pressure is bearing fruits, but further action is needed.

That’s why I am pressing on with my proposal. Several health boards provide access to free condoms via a card that can be used in health centres and elsewhere. If the NHS can offer a menu of free condoms, I don’t see why sanitary protection needs can’t be supported in a similar way.

In a victory for campaigners, retailers like Tesco and Morrisons have announced they will pay the ‘luxury’ tampon tax so that customers don’t have to.  Now it’s time for government to take responsibility too.  Have your say at periodpoverty.scot until December 8 2017.