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A year into Scotland's historic campaign against period poverty

This opinion piece is 11 months old
 

Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP assesses the landmark legislation

One year ago Scotland took the historic step of becoming the first country in the world to legally protect the right to access free period products for everyone who needs them. 

It was and remains a radical approach to the overarching gender equality and dignity issues associated with menstruation, and one that I am immensely pleased our country has taken. 

Access to essential period products is not just an issue in Scotland, it is one felt by people around the world every day. EU research has suggested one in 12 girls cannot afford period products.  

But because of the stigma which is still attached to menstruation, until relatively recently it was not an issue that was widely talked about. 

As the Scottish Government works to create a fairer, more equal, society, ministers saw a real opportunity to make a difference. Women and girls should not have to suffer the indignity of not having the means to meet their basic needs. This is more important than ever at a time when people are making difficult choices due to the cost of living crisis. 

The Scottish Government began to fund access to free period products across all schools, colleges and universities in 2018. We extended this to a range of public settings and community groups supporting people on low incomes in 2019. 

The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 goes further, placing duties on Scotland’s local authorities and education providers, to make it a legal right to reasonably easy access to a range of free period products, as and when they are needed. 

The act was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament because, like me, members across the chamber believed that it is fundamental to dignity, equality and human rights. 

Thanks to the fantastic efforts of our local authorities, schools, colleges and universities, who are all covered by the act, being able to access a range of free period products is now more convenient.  

We know that being able to access free period products is likely to impact most on those living in low income households or those who struggle to access products due to other barriers, for example carers or disabled people. A survey carried out before the law came into force found some women and girls experienced worry about their monthly spend on period products, as well as embarrassment when buying period products.  

Some were unaware of existing access to free period products, and availability could be difficult for those living in rural areas. 

Others, unable to buy the products they needed, were even turning to alternatives, such as using toilet paper or wearing products for longer than recommended. 

While the act still in its infancy –  and time is required to allow the policy to fully embed before we see its true impact – positive changes are already being felt.  

Those already accessing free period products reported that this left them less anxious about their periods and household finances and better able to get on with their day-to-day activities. 

We will replicate this survey in 2025 to see what impact the act has had. 

Thanks to the fantastic efforts of our local authorities, schools, colleges and universities, who are all covered by the act, being able to access a range of free period products is now more convenient.  

Pupils and students can already access them from all schools, colleges and university campuses. But we are already looking at lessons that can be learned from best practice around the country – such as the importance of making products available in a wide range of locations like libraries, leisure and community centres, where further support and advice on a range of other services can often be accessed, should it be needed. 

There are a range of efforts going on around the country to talk to vulnerable and seldom-heard groups to find out what would work best for them. I’m grateful to everyone who has been involved in developing the best ways to access products to meet their needs. 

The work we are doing in Scotland doesn’t stop at providing products. We know that despite an increasingly positive culture surrounding periods there are still ongoing concerns about stigma, shame and worry around periods and period products. To help tackle this, the Scottish Government undertook a campaign that helped challenge the stigma around periods and encouraged more people to talk openly about them.  

The world-leading work we are doing in Scotland doesn’t stop there. As well as the anti-stigma campaign, we have funded an educational website for employers and improved resources available for schools in talking about menstrual health. 

On this first anniversary of the act coming into force, I remain proud that Scotland is the first national government anywhere to take such action. We are learning from best practice and we will continue to share our experience with other countries from across the world. 

However, if I can leave you with a final thought, it is that access to free period products is now available to anyone who needs them, regardless of their circumstances.  

Information on how to access products is available on mygov.scot and local authority websites. The free app, PickupMyPeriod, and website, also list more than 1,700 locations from across all of Scotland, making it even easier to identify and visit the locations in your area where period products can be accessed for free. 

Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP is social justice secretary for the Scottish Parliament.