Credit: AJ Duncan

No one should have to pay to bleed

By Rachel Campbell

Scotland has taken a groundbreaking step, now the rest of the world must follow.

Scotland recently became the first country in the world to make period products freely available to those who need them. The bill was introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has been campaigning to end period poverty since 2016. She argued that “periods don’t stop for pandemics and the work to improve access to essential tampons, pads and reusables has never been more important.” Lennon’s words are indisputable; a recent survey by Young Scot revealed that a quarter of young people at school, college or university who have periods have had difficulty accessing necessary products. Another survey by Plan International UK found that one in ten people with periods have been unable to afford sanitary products; one in seven have struggled to afford them; and one in five have switched to a “less suitable” product due to cost. What’s more, the stigma surrounding periods means that if young people don’t have the necessary sanitary products, they can miss out on education. A staggering 49% of young people with periods in the UK have missed an entire day of school due to their period, and those who have no access to the necessary products are guaranteed to be missing more than that. I’m proud to live in a country that is taking a groundbreaking step in the fight against period poverty, but why has it taken so long – and how long will it take for the rest of the world to follow suit?

This issue has been ignored because periods are considered taboo. But ignoring the fact that people who menstruate are more likely to miss out on their education for up to a week every month is unacceptable. This once again comes down to the fact that the majority of decision makers in many countries have never experienced a period, nor the inability to afford products for it. In 2020, there are currently 220 women in the House of Commons, and at 34%, this is an all-time high. With many girls missing out on education because of period poverty, they are missing out on gaining the skills which could bring gender equality to seats of power, and therefore the ability to advocate for issues which affect women. 

Period poverty is a global issue, with ActionAid citing that half of school-age girls in Kenya have no access to period products, and 12% of menstruating people in India can’t afford sanitary products. ActionAid have also highlighted that a lack of access to period products can have serious health implications, with some people turning to alternative methods such as unclean cloths, rags or newspaper to absorb bleeding, which can clearly lead to infections. And, as much as the Eurocentric narrative would like us to believe otherwise, even supposedly prosperous Western European countries are not exempt from this. What’s more, limited supplies can lead to prolonged use of one tampon, which can also result in infection or toxic shock syndrome, a rare but life-threatening condition caused by bacteria entering the body and releasing harmful toxins.

To me, it’s a no-brainer that people who menstruate should have free access to necessary products, particularly when the alternative is missing out on education, work, and other daily activities. Yet, glance through the responses to any news article reporting Scotland’s latest step towards ending period poverty, and you are inundated with claims that this is a waste of the taxpayers money. In a sarcastic comment claiming we should all receive free food if period product users receive them on the basis that they are a basic need, an important point was raised. We should be investing in making these products available, just as we should be investing in food banks. Everyone should have access to basic necessities, though of course that doesn’t mean everyone should receive them regardless of whether they can afford them. This scheme is about ensuring those who can’t access these products because of their cost, are no longer restricted by this. It is about equal access to education, and to anything else which people have been prevented from doing due to a lack of access to period products.

Other countries have been making steps to make these products more accessible. Germany reduced sales tax on sanitary towels and tampons from 19% to 7% at the beginning of 2020, with the argument that periods are not a luxury and so should not be taxed as such. Many countries have made period products sale tax-free already, including  India, Canada, Australia and Kenya (the latter having done so as early as 2011). But the reduction of the tampon tax, or even ridding the tax altogether, can only do so much; for those who are truly struggling to access these products, this just doesn’t cut it. Other countries need to keep up the momentum of the focus on this issue by following in Scotland’s footsteps and making these products truly accessible to those who need them. We can’t keep ignoring the fact that people deserve to learn and work and play sports, regardless of whether they bleed once a month. 


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