Period Poverty and the Cross Party Group on Women’s Health

by Monica Lennon MSP

Menstruation is a natural, regular occurrence at some point in life for around half the population – but given the way we talk about periods, you could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that.

Because the hushed way in which periods tend to be discussed, with young girls often taken aside for their education on matter, leaves the impression that we think menstruation is something to be ashamed of. The stigma around periods means it’s almost never a topic for polite conversation – period – and the same has long been true for politics.

It’s no secret that women are under-represented in our decision-making chambers across the country, making up only 35% of MSPs and less than 25% of local councillors. The indirect result of this is that women are so often not represented or considered in the decisions that are taken at a national level.

When I first raised the issue of menstruation with the Scottish Government via a parliamentary question in the summer of 2016, just after I had been elected to the Parliament in May, the answer I received was deeply disappointing.

They stated at the time that menstruation was not a health issue, that they had no plans to introduce free access to sanitary products to women and girls who need them, that they had carried out no work to assess the cost of sanitary products and that it was their understanding that some foodbanks could provide access to these products to those in need of them.

I found it completely unacceptable that the Scottish Government would accept foodbanks as an adequate response to the issue of people not being able to access products which are vital to their health, and that’s why I’ve been using the platform I have as an MSP to consistently raise this issue.

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, feeling the squeeze on your pay packet or have certain health conditions, talking about and managing your period isn’t just awkward, it can be impossible and messy. Period poverty, which can lead to people not changing sanitary products frequently enough or improvising with rags, is both humiliating and unsafe.

Fortunately, since the Scottish Government’s initial answer last year, things are beginning to change, and a wide range of charities and activists are now backing my proposal to end period poverty and improve access to sanitary products for all.

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 asking the First Minister directly. The Scottish Government recently announced a pilot-scheme to provide free sanitary products to people on low-income in Aberdeen, showing the pressure put on the government is bearing fruit, but further action is needed. While a select few in Aberdeen are being given assistance, there are still countless others continuing to suffer the indignity of period poverty.

That’s why I’ve launched a consultation on a proposal for a Member’s Bill to put a duty on Scottish Ministers 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.

In the last year, I’ve also started a Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on the topic of women’s health, to look at a broad range of health issues, not just menstruation, which predominately or disproportionately affect women. From the mesh scandal, to under-diagnosed conditions like endometriosis, to certain forms of cancers, such as ovarian cancer, which doctors find difficult to detect, to issues around access to contraception and reproductive healthcare, there are a broad range of issues related to women’s health which do not get the Parliamentary time and attention they deserve.

When doing the research for my first cross-party debate on period poverty in September 2016, I discovered that there had only been one other mention of tampons in the Parliament’s history – during an early 2000s debate on Scotland’s beeches. The Scottish Parliament has been silent for far too long on too many important issues which matter to women – and I’m pleased to be playing my part in changing that.

On the day of launching the period poverty consultation, experts, charities and people who have experienced period poverty first hand spoke out publicly in support of my proposal. From

Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament, to volunteers who run foodbanks and the Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner, we are building a broad base of support that means we can change the law in Scotland, and make period poverty history.

You can have your say on my proposed change in the law at

www.periodpoverty.scot

before 8 December 2017.

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