Period Poverty Is A Workplace Issue - Kate Sang, Katriona Myhill and Jen Remnant (Edinburgh Business School, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh)
The last couple of years has seen a growing public interest in period poverty, revealing particular gendered patterns of poverty. A 2018 poll suggested that nearly 20% of girls and women in Scotland are unable to afford period products such as pads and tampons. Much of this attention has been on girls and women who are in the education system or who are using foodbanks. Also in 2018, the Scottish Government launched a scheme to ensure all schools, colleges and universities provide free period products for those who require them. Similar efforts are in place to help homeless women access the period products they require. These are significant steps toward making Scotland a global leader in challenging period poverty. However, a focus on education or on those who are not in employment or who are using foodbanks neglects the experiences of women, trans and non-binary people in employment who may also experience period poverty.
Our research conducted between 2017 to 2019 has revealed that many women, trans and non-binary people struggle to manage their period while they are at work. This can be worse for those living with conditions such as endometriosis which can cause heavy menstrual bleeding and considerable pain. Our data suggests that women may be absent from work due to severe menstrual symptoms, but are unlikely to report the true reason for their absence due to embarrassment.
In the summer of 2018 Danielle Rowley, the then MP for Midlothian shared her experiences of the costs of menstruation. Her story of stained trousers attracted considerable media attention and highlighted that broader costs of menstruation, particularly heavy periods. Our research also suggests that some people, even in highly skilled careers such as education, are unable to afford not only menstrual products, but also over the counter medications, clothing and other required items. Women, trans and non-binary participants in the research shared distressing accounts of attempting to manage their periods and gynaecological health conditions when unable to afford appropriate products. While the focus on period poverty remains on those accessing education and those experiencing extreme hardship, we are missing the realities of those who are stuck in cycles of precarious work and low pay.
A radical approach is needed and universal access to menstrual products would ensure that no one missed school, work or social activities because they can’t access towels, tampons or cups. A universal approach would prevent anyone from falling through the cracks of policies which target specific groups. Period poverty can be experienced by anyone and is a workplace issue. When we go to work we don’t expect to bring our own toilet paper or handwash with us! It’s time for period products to be recognised as the essential item that they are and to be accessible to all.
My period is not a luxury. Just ask anyone who menstruates, and they will tell you the same.
At best, our monthly cycle is an inconvenience – an au natural reminder that today really wasn’t the day to wear those good knickers. At worst, our period can serve as a devastating and painful reminder that our body maybe isn’t working the way it should be.
My name is Katy Johnston, I’m 23-years-old and following surgery in April of 2018 I was officially diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis: a gynaecological condition that affects 1 in 10 women in Scotland and makes my period the worst time of the month.
Endometriosis is the second most common gynaecological condition in the UK – it occurs when cells that replicate those lining the uterus grow elsewhere in the body – fusing themselves to organs and creating sticky cysts and painful clots. Each month, these cells break down and bleed out, but, unlike a normal period, the blood has nowhere to go. Instead, it stays inside, snowballing, and brings with it extreme cramps, nausea, pain during sex, heavy menstrual bleeding and potential infertility.
So yeah, my period is more than a monthly inconvenience. It’s a lingering headache, a persistent nightmare. It’s constant and unrelenting and it went undiagnosed for years, because, after all, ‘it’s just a period’.
For me, and I’d hazard, most the 190 million individuals with endometriosis across the universe, access to sanitary products is no luxury, but a daily essential.
And, as MSP and shadow cabinet secretary for health and sport, Monica Lennon put it: “No one should face the indignity of being unable to access these essential products to manage their period.”
I’ve gotten pretty used to carting around a small medical cabinet worth of painkillers, heat packs, tens machines, and sanitary items with me, always. Frankly, these are the essential items I rely on to get through the day. Anyone who might call them ‘luxury’ or ‘non-essential’, clearly doesn’t have a gynaecological condition like endometriosis.
This condition isn’t cheap, according to leading charity Endometriosis UK, endometriosis costs the UK economy £8.2bn a year in treatment, loss of work and healthcare costs.
Recently, lugging about my stash of medical supplies, I’ve become increasingly aware of my relative privilege.
My period is costly. My bleeding is daily (although I’m also menopausal thanks to endo – long story) and I’m constantly forking out for the latest pain relief gadgets, essential oils, ointments, over the counter remedies in search of a cure (There is no cure by the way).
I’m a student. I work part-time. I depend on freelance work and my loan to fund both my life, pay the bills and contribute towards the management of my condition. I am not well off but, the difference is, I can afford to bleed through my knickers when a lot of people can’t.
According to the homelessness charity Shelter, in 2018 34,972 homeless applications were made in Scotland. If half of those people are women and one in ten of those women have endometriosis, we’ve got a problem and it’s not going anywhere.
I am so grateful to the NHS: for my weekly prescription, which, no doubt, I could not afford without it. For the treatment I have received from MRI’s to ultrasounds in the early stages through to surgery, which I will need again and for my many regular GP appointments and consultations.
But we’ve got a long way to go. I was delighted when I saw the issue of free sanitary provisions in hospitals flash up on Sky news last week. How is it that my student library freely stockpiles tampons in their loos, but countless NHS hospital would think twice before supplying period provisions? Even on the gynaecology ward, after my first operation, I was forced to borrow sanitary items from a fellow patient as I had soaked through my pyjamas and the ward sisters had nothing to offer me but paper knickers.
Endometriosis isn’t cheap, but we didn’t ask for it. This health condition shouldn’t be forced into the shadows because it’s about periods and that makes us uncomfortable. Regardless of whether it’s endo, PCOS, menorrhagia or just a regular period, no one should feel caught short in public spaces.
Schools, public bathrooms, libraries, galleries, football stadiums, concert venues, shopping centres, hospitals should all cater for people who bleed.
Because there’s a lot of us, and silencing us doesn’t stop us bleeding, it just creates a culture where women grow up ashamed of what is natural and embarrassed about something over which they have no control.
"Our Ultimate Goal - for menstrual products to be widely available, for anyone, for free" - GU Red Alert
Over the past few years of organising and campaigning, we at GU Red Alert have met some amazing people and had a great time combatting period poverty. However, we would like for nothing more than to be made redundant. Our ultimate goal - for menstrual products to be widely available, for anyone, for free – would leave us with nothing to campaign for. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
When Eleanor, our president, first heard about period poverty a few years ago, thanks to the campaign group The Homeless Period, she was horrified. How could a rich country like the UK, like Scotland, allow its citizens to live in such undignified conditions? And yet, when she had a look around for organisations she could join to help out, there was nothing. In 2015, the public still felt uneasy to speak openly about menstruating. Since the topic was taboo, if you had any trouble affording the means to keep yourself clean and comfortable, it was on you. Within a few weeks, Eleanor tracked down other likeminded, horrified students and, in a University of Glasgow lecture theatre after-hours, GU Red Alert was born.
In 2015 we were finding our feet. We put on film screenings and charged menstrual products as an admission fee, we campaigned against the tampon tax, we talked to our university’s unions about selling products at lower prices, or for free. Our first big moment came in Christmas of that year, when we launched our first washbag appeal. Students and others in the community put together almost 100 washbags with menstrual products and essential toiletries which were given as Christmas presents to vulnerable service users at the Simon Community’s emergency women’s service.
Since then, the washbag appeal has grown in success every Christmas and we have gotten better at campaigning over the rest of the year. With the support of Monica Lennon MSP, we were able to bring our fight against period poverty to the Scottish Parliament, where we were able to input our perspective to her growing movement. We knew then, as we know now, that universal, free provision was the only way to eradicate this problem for good.
From our experiences with community groups, activists, and service users – means-testing is expensive, unwieldy, and can prevent people from accessing essential services and products. The period poverty debate in Scotland is radically different than it was in 2015. Period poverty is regularly in the press, people are donating more menstrual products to food banks than before, and students at schools, colleges, and universities receive pads and tampons for free. However, period poverty is still a very real problem in the lives of vulnerable people in this country.
When Red Alert president Eleanor took the period poverty plight to the British Medical Association’s large annual conference, doctors from across the UK recognised the terrible impact this problem could have on their patients. As such, they unanimously moved in support of her motion – to enshrine in BMA policy the pledge to campaign for universal free provision.
Scotland is getting closer to becoming the first country to make period poverty a sad part of history. Until then, we will continue to campaign, collect, and organise, and we hope you’ll join us for the fight!
Thanks to the hard work of Monica Lennon MSP, the issue of period poverty is very much on
the political main stage.
As austerity continues to bite across the country and despite their best efforts, families continue
to struggle to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their children. Indeed, in today’s
Scotland, poverty takes many forms, which is why our Labour minority administration set up a
working group to explore ways to support families affected by poverty, looking at issues
including school uniform, health and wellbeing, homework and out of schools learning and
The research carried out by this group made clear that something had to be done about tackling
the stigma and barriers associated with period poverty.
Following our summer break, pupils attending primary, secondary and additional support needs
schools in North Lanarkshire will have free access to sanitary products - one of the first local
authorities in Scotland to do so.
It is totally unacceptable that women and girls struggle to access adequate sanitary products
simply because they cannot afford them. By ensuring the provision of free products within every
school - with a view to to extend the scheme universally to other establishments including
leisure centres, libraries and community centres - pupils in over 150 schools across North
Lanarkshire will benefit as part of a range of initiatives by this administration aimed at helping
our communities deal with the real impact of poverty. These include expanding our breakfast
club provision, our innovative Club 365 programme which provides free food and activities for
eligible children during the holidays and at weekends and a significantly increased footwear and
clothing grant to one of the highest levels in Scotland.
Almost as important, however, as the provision of free sanitary products are how they will be
accessed by the public. That’s why we’ve committed to access being made available to sanitary
products in a dignified and respectful way. No woman should have to ask or request for these
sanitary products from a member of council staff, teacher or other school staff member.
Sadly, in 2018, poverty still takes many forms. As a Labour minority administration, we have
pledged to make life easier for those who struggle most in any way we can. It is our hope that
Monica Lennon’s Sanitary Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill receives unanimous backing
at the Scottish Parliament and is the first in a long-line of anti-poverty measures passed at
Holyrood as they follow the lead of administrations like North Lanarkshire.
I didn’t really think about period poverty until colleagues who volunteered at a Dundee foodbank told me about young women and girls who were asking about sanitary products and telling their stories about the impact on their lives of not being able to afford them.
Some were unable to go to school, some were subjected to bullying, all were unhappy and all embarrassed or ashamed. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having to go through that. When I was that age, I had very heavy and long periods. I can still remember worrying about leakages, and being caught out when it started unexpectedly. Running the gauntlet of the school bus with stained clothes was hideous, and that’s without social media to spread the teasing. But I knew that I wouldn’t have to go without sanitary protection for longer than it took to reach a public toilet or get home. Those girls my colleagues met in Dundee didn’t have that comfort.
So we started collecting sanitary products in the staff break out area to donate to the foodbank. I thought people might find it too embarrassing, or the novelty would wear off or might even complain. But they didn’t – they collected so much we had to have two boxes on the go at a time. And it wasn’t just the women, the men bought them too.
What still surprises me is that people were so reluctant to speak about it. Women swap stories about birth, about all sorts of ailments, about their sex lives, but periods have remained strangely taboo particularly in mixed company.
That’s why I’m so pleased that women like Monica Lennon have spoken out tirelessly and the government and wider society have responded positively. There is a strong message about visible, free sanitary towels and tampons which says it’s normal and here’s what you need as well as the most important aspect – making sure all women and girls have the protection they need.
You could argue that providing free products in offices and public spaces is simply subsidising people who can already afford them. However, I think universal availability is part of destigmatising. All women go through this and it’s important for young girls in particular to feel “normal”.
No one should ever feel ashamed of such a natural human function, nor should they be bullied, teased or excluded because of it. Sanitary protection is a basic human right and I am very pleased to be supporting this campaign.
Until very recently, it would not have crossed my mind to discuss a woman’s period with friends and family.
As someone who has not experienced period pain, or had to go to the pharmacy or shops to get a supply of sanitary products it is an issue that I’ve never had the need to discuss.
However in a professional capacity as a journalist, I have been reporting on the issue of period poverty and particularly on Monica Lennon’s campaign to end it for the last 18 months.
It was not until I started covering the issue from a journalistic point of view that I found that for most women and girls having a period is very much a part of their lives and that access to sanitary products is a fundamental human right.
As I was researching the issue of period poverty, I found it shocking that many women and girls could not afford to buy a packet of tampons when they are going through their period.
A recent report from Plan International UK found that two in five girls in Scotland have been forced to be using toilet roll to manage their period because they cannot afford to buy sanitary products. 
The study also revealed that 45 per cent of girls living in Scotland have had to use alternative means for sanitary products, like newspapers and toilet rolls because they are struggling to buy tampons.
The survey also showed that just over a quarter of women and girls in Scotland have used the same sanitary product longer than they should have because they could not afford to purchase an adequate supply to accommodate their needs.
As Monica Lennon told the CommonSpace, there could be health risks for those women and girls who do not change their sanitary products on a regular basis. 
Even though it is rare, toxic shock syndrome is one of conditions that is associated with the extended use of products.
Due to this, I back Monica Lennon’s campaign to make Scotland the first country in the world to have free universal access to sanitary products.
With the UK still in austerity following the financial crash in 2008, they are some women and young girls who will have to choose between buying food or buy a packet of tampons when they are menstruating, and they may be putting their health at risk.
Currently for those young women and girls who are in need of an emergency supply of sanitary products they would have an option to turn to a food bank for help.
However, for some women, they would go without during their period due to the shame and embarrassment of having to ask for a packet of sanitary products.
Condoms can be accessed discreetly and at no cost from a registered dispenser via the C-Card system.
A similar scheme will need to be put in place for women to allow them to get their supply of sanitary products without feeling ashamed or embarrassed in doing so.
By introducing such a scheme, this would mean that there would be universal access to free sanitary that would help to bring an end to period poverty.
If no scheme is introduced, I would also be worried for Scotland’s future if nothing has changed for those women and young girls who continue to struggle through their period.
As Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs last May: for many women and girls sanitary products during menstruation is “not a luxury but a necessity”.
 Because I am a Girl – Plan International UK - https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-break-the-barriers-report-032018pdf/download?token=Fs-HYP3v
 Labour MSP: Period poverty could put women's lives at risk- CommonSpace -https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10052/labour-msp-period-poverty-could-put-womens-lives-risk
 Sturgeon: Sanitary products during menstruation are not a luxury but a necessity – CommonSpace - https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10911/sturgeon-sanitary-products-during-menstruation-are-not-luxury-necessity
Improving the match day experience for women - Erin Slaven, Campaigning for free sanitary products at Celtic Park
It is no secret that the debate around period poverty is more prominent than ever before. I have admired the work done by Labour’s Monica Lennon MSP on tackling period poverty from afar, and it’s been great to see college’s, universities and other public spaces providing sanitary items for free. A pilot scheme has been introduced in my university for sanitary product provision and I was chuffed to bits when I seen it. “We’re making progress – yass!”
But the fight is not over! I am a season ticket holder for Celtic Football Club, and with my universities moves towards accessible sanitary products in mind, it got me thinking about why a similar scheme couldn’t be introduced in football grounds – or any sporting venues for that matter! However, focusing on football, its no secret that it has historically been a male-dominated sport. Whilst the number of women attending football fixtures has most definitely increased, we’re still the in the minority. It is important that we are visible and our needs are recognised. I shared a poll on Twitter asking about people’s experiences with accessibility to sanitary products at football grounds and a common answer was that they “couldn’t remember” if there was a sanitary items dispenser in the toilets that they used. This isn’t good enough. Women should leave sporting events knowing that their needs were well catered for, and I think this is something that access to free sanitary items would provide. The principle of being recognised and paid attention to is important – in addition to removing the financial obstacles to buying sanitary items.
It cannot be ignored that at the heart of this move is the knowledge that, as the price of sanitary products increase, not all self-identifying women and girls can afford them. It would be ignorant to assume that everyone can afford a sanitary towel or a tampon, especially when you’re using multiple a day for generally up to a week. We can’t have people compromising their health and hygiene by going without sanitary items because they can’t afford them whilst others can. So, yes, of course this is about making sure the products are easily accessible for everyone, but it’s not the sole aim of our campaign. A few other female season ticket holders and myself have put this campaign in place to promote women’s presence at the football, to make our needs visible and our voices heard. We also know in practice that sanitary hygiene in football grounds is harder than it may seem. We have heard from girls who said there was not a sanitary items dispenser in the toilet closest to them, or that there’s no access to sanitary bins. We hope that through this campaign and opening communications with the Club that we may be able to introduce a system where sanitary items are free to access and the comfort of the matchday experience can be optimised for female support.
This problem is not just specific to Celtic, to football, or to sport. It’s nation-wide and its roots can be found in the unequal gender balance upon which our society is built. Social attitudes mean that we are encouraged not to speak about menstruation or sanitary items, hence why little progress has been made in sanitary provision for women and girls. We believe that these products are just as necessary as toilet roll, which we don’t have to pay for. We want to break the stigma of talking about women’s reproductive health in public and we hope that through our campaign we will no longer see women and girls struggling to access sanitary products - we want a more comfortable match day experience for all who menstruate.
Ending indignity, promoting equality: Why Scotland’s largest teaching union backs the campaign to end period poverty. Blog post by Nicola Fisher, EIS President
The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, has a long-standing interest in highlighting the damaging impact of low-income poverty on education. Last year we held special screenings of Kev Loach’s powerful film ’I, Daniel Blake’, to help our members become more aware of the changes to the social security system which are driving many into poverty and despair.
One scene which profoundly moved our members showed Katie, a struggling single mum, experiencing deep shame after being caught shoplifting sanitary products. Those working in food banks are increasingly encountering women and girls who are suffering the indignity of being unable to afford to buy sanitary products when experiencing their period. The Project Manager of one food bank in Nottingham says, “It’s quite something when you give somebody a box of tampons and they break down in tears” . A spokesperson for the leading food bank network in Scotland, interviewed in July 2017, said, “We've taken evidence across the country of women who supplement that [period products] by the use of socks, they would use toilet paper and in some of the worst circumstances…by the use of newspaper."
Women and girls deserve so much better than this. That’s why the EIS strongly supports Monica Lennon’s proposal to bring forward a Bill to end period poverty and oblige schools, colleges and universities to distribute items as needed, free of charge.
We believe that free and easy access to period products is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of women and girls. We know that health and wellbeing (one of the three pillars of the Curriculum for Excellence) impact on educational outcomes. We also believe that universal free provision of period products will enhance learners’ attendance and attainment.
It is common sense to suggest that girls are more likely to attend school/college, and be able to focus on their learning, if they know they can manage their period without stress or shame. However, this is also an evidence-based position. Research commissioned by ActionAid in 2016 found that more than 3.5 million girls and women in the UK had missed school or work because of their period.
A universal provision scheme as proposed by Ms. Lennon would also help to mitigate the impact of poverty on education, and should form part of the overall approach to ensuring ‘equity’ in educational provision, a stated Scottish Government priority.
Furthermore, it would promote equality - in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty. And, crucially, it would contribute to tackling the stigma associated with periods. Periods are not a medical emergency or a secret shame – they are a normal and natural part of life for women and girls. They deserve to be part of public policy in the same way as any other health issue.
In the EIS, we know only too well that the current climate of austerity, with one in five children in Scotland living in poverty, is damaging to our learners. We know children and young people are coming to school hungry and cold. We know families are choosing between eating and heating. We know that women and girls are stressed and distressed if they have no money to buy period products and are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for an emergency supply. It is disgraceful that, in this day and age, many women and girls struggle to access basic sanitary products, which can have a significant impact on their health and wellbeing. This is a matter of basic human dignity, to which we should all be entitled, regardless of income. It’s time to end period poverty for good.
It is a man’s world, even in 21st century Scotland, with male decision makers making up 70% of the Civil Service, it’s vital that we highlight the horrifying indignity and inequalities, that women who are faced with homelessness live with, to everyone who can make a difference. Makeshift sanitary products, such as socks and cobbled together tampons, are their reality on a regular basis. In fact, 60% of a sample group of women we support have no clean underwear before, during or after their period.
At Simon Community Scotland, we engage, listen and respond to the most vulnerable. Our Street Team, who work on the frontline, providing vital support to those sleeping rough, hear these horrifying and needless insights on a daily basis. As a result we have been responding in a discrete way to meet the needs of women for some years now.
We realised our discretion doesn’t challenge the issue nearly enough and so in August this year we launched our ‘Period Friendly Campaign’ to both meet the practical needs of the most marginalised women in our society. We also want to highlight the issue more and galvanise support of the entire country to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, and the women we represent, to end this needless indignity.
Meeting people where they are at and building relationships is the secret to our longstanding success as Scotland’s largest homelessness provider. We listened and responded to the needs of the women we support and created ‘Period Friendly Packs’. Going beyond just the products themselves and also supplying: sanitary towels, tampons, wipes, pants, and even a bar of chocolate.
Our role in creating the campaign is to establish a platform to invite the support of many stakeholder groups: the general public, whom we affectionately call ‘Period Friendly Pals’ who volunteer with us to establish ‘Period Friendly Points’ - public toilet facilities where we can set up stations of these products for easy access to those who need them. Then there are those who donate supplies of products, organisations such as Glasgow University, through their ‘ Red Alert Appeal’ and many others who have linked arms with us to positively impact lives. We also want to look wider to identify key influencers who share our vision, such as MSP Monica Lennon, and the incredible work she is doing nationally to highlight the plight of all women’s period poverty.
The overriding message is that solving this issue takes courage and requires the collective hearts and minds of people right across Scotland who continue to challenge the inequality of opportunity as they go about their daily lives. This is a battle that we can win by working together.
As soon as you bring up the issue of eradication period poverty or the free provision of sanitary products, it naturally creates a debate: but the comment I have heard most in response to this issue is “well men get free condoms” - but what does that actually mean and how does it fit into the context of this debate and subsequent idea of universal access to free sanitary products?
Well to begin with, the statement is true: you can access condoms for free. That’s the purpose of the c-card - anyone can pick up one of these cards up and take it along to any of the registered dispensary points. Not only that but you get to pick from 11 different types with the scheme boasting that on your first time using the C-card you will receive a variety and so you know to find out what best suits you.
Monica Lennon MSP’s consultation on how we actually implement universal access to free sanitary products has taken inspiration from the C-card scheme. Just like the c-card, this would be available to all who want it. When taken to the relevant dispensing point, there would be a choice of what sanitary products you would prefer.
And this is where the crucial part comes in and why only by implementing universal free access to sanitary products will we be doing ALL we can to eliminate period poverty from our society - creating that equality that is truly available to all.
There are families now across Scotland with 2, 3 or maybe even more daughters who are struggling to cover the cost of sanitary products. If means tested, they would not get access to whatever benefit would entitle them to free sanitary provisions and this is just one example why this would not be the benefit of Scotland and the campaign to eradicate period poverty.
We see people across our country turning to food banks for sanitary products and we of course have a duty to them to do all we can to ensure that in the future no person is forced to go to a food bank at all. But we also have a duty to those currently on the brink, struggling by, just making it - but not at that stage YET of having to access a food bank.
With rising living costs we see everyday that more and more people are struggling to make ends meet. We can take a stand and do something now to do what is best for Scotland in tackling the growing problem of period poverty. Make free access to sanitary products universal because it’s the right thing to do.