When it was announced that Scotland was on track to becoming the first country in the world to offer free sanitary products, through a regional pilot scheme, there was an explosion of hope across Britain. Though not quite set in stone – the six-month, Aberdeen-based pilot aims to use its findings as a launchpad for a country-wide initiative and is to report back to Holyrood in the near future – it seemed as though the increasingly dire prospects for women without the means to shell out for sanitary products were on their way to being recognised as a matter of urgency.
Six months later, and research from grassroots political organisation Women For Independence (WFI) has shed light on just how desperate the situation at hand has become. Almost one in five women in Scotland faces period poverty due to financial struggles, with one in 10 women forced to prioritise household items like food and forego buying hygiene products.
In a number of cases, people have even had to resort to using toilet roll, clothes and newspapers in lieu of period products, with 17 per cent of respondents admitting to seeking period-product provision from friends and food banks.
The survey, of over 1,000 women, also shed light on some of the health implications of being unable to afford sanitary products. Twenty-two per cent of women said that a lack of access to sanitary products meant that they could not change them as often as they needed to – with 11 per cent of those revealing that they had incurred thrush or urinary tract infections as a direct result.
Speaking to The Guardian about the results of the research, #FreePeriodScotland founder and WFI committee member Victoria Heaney said, “The findings of the research are incredible. For the first time we have a picture of what women are going through every day. The emotional labour spent concealing that you are going without products has such a detrimental impact.”
I was so ashamed when my sister had to go through the same thing, but I didn’t know who to go to for help. I thought it had to be kept a secret
Along with acknowledging the myriad barriers that poverty, in particular, presents to menstruating women, several campaigners have drawn attention to the wider impact of avoiding candid discussions about periods.
Kerry Wright, a volunteer with Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE) – the charity responsible for running the government’s free sanitary-product pilot scheme, said of the findings: “It takes me right back to my own experiences as a teenage girl. My parents were addicts, so they were in and out of mental institutions and prison. As the eldest of five, I was carer for my siblings. There was never any money, so I used what we had at home – socks, toilet roll.
“I was so ashamed when my sister had to go through the same thing, but I didn’t know who to go to for help. I thought it had to be kept a secret.”
As disheartening as the extent of period poverty may be on first glance, it is heartening that efforts to eradicate period poverty in Scotland are as wide-ranging as they are. As well as the government’s pilot scheme in Aberdeen, there is the #FreePeriodScotland initiative and the SNP’s vow last year to see in the provision of free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities from the beginning of the next academic year.
Other noteworthy efforts that have sprung up in the past year or so include Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s members' bill for universal access to free period products, which is currently at consultation stage, and moves from a number of independent businesses to join the fight against period poverty.
As #FreePeriodScotland founder Heaney suggests, as well as legislating for change, the prospect of giving women free access to sanitary products also rests on our ability to become comfortable with public discussions about menstruation.
“For me, the research is not only about women in poverty. It is about breaking the shame and stigma that go hand in hand with talking about menstruation. I hope the research starts a national conversation, from the dinner table to parliament, and contributes to a culture shift in our attitudes and education,” she said.