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.
I am a 60 year old man and men of my vintage don’t, or at least until very recently didn’t, talk about periods.
Of course because men have always held disproportionate sway over what could and should be discussed, and therefore in determining what is and isn’t important, there have been no speeches on menstruation.
For this, and countless other gender-based failings, men should, and this one does, apologise.
It’s self-evident that I cannot know the lived experience of one of nature’s essential features. However, the same can be said of many other things, once shunned in public discourse, but now everyday parlance.
Our communities have been blighted by austerity, that conscious, pernicious decision taken by far-away, and out of touch, politicians. In my constituency work I’ve been confronted by the brutal consequences of poverty and, until recently, that was poverty which had implications for housing, energy and well-being. Thus far at least, no-one has come to me and mentioned ‘period poverty’. Perhaps why would they speak about it to a middle-aged man?
Raising awareness of an issue is fundamental to seeking policy change. I regret I am late to this matter and thank Monica and others for highlighting it. I’m troubled to think of the additional anguish that has, and continues to be caused by period poverty and it must end.
I wish Monica well in her efforts to right a wrong and improve things for women and girls and I hope that all ‘men of my vintage’ give her their support
I've got an admission to make. I’ve never had a period. I've never experienced period pains nor have I ever faced the emergency of having no sanitary products when all of sudden I need them.
I don't think I need to explain why I've never had a period but the reason I am writing a blog about an issue that I have no lived experience of is because Monica Lennon's period poverty campaign led me to take action on the issue this summer.
When Monica started raising the issue in the Scottish Parliament, I had no idea of some of the shocking measures some women are going to because they can't afford sanitary products.
Sanitary products are a basic human need. Woman don't get to choose whether to have periods or not, nor do they get to choose what they have in their purse before it comes.
So why are women in this country going without sanitary products because they can't afford them?
Why are young girls at school stuffing their pants with toilet paper or skipping school altogether through the embarrassment of not being able to access proper sanitary protection?
After the Council elections in May our minority Labour administration asked Council officers to look at ways in which we could provide free sanitary products in all our secondary schools. By the time the schools returned for the new term in August we had installed vending machines in our secondary school toilets that provide tampons and pads free of charge. The scheme has been welcomed by pupils and regularly comes up in discussions as we visit secondary schools for our Joint Youth Cabinet meetings.
Since we launched our initiative other Councils have followed our lead and the First Minister has pledged to install a legal duty for free sanitary products to be available in all schools, colleges and universities. That's great but it’s not being rolled out until next August - we took our decision and launched it within weeks, there is no need to wait.
It’s also the case that the key to any obligation to provide sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities is how it is prescribed. For example, in some colleges and universities the Students Association or woman's groups already help with sanitary products but it is the students themselves who donate the items and then anyone wishing to access the provision needs to go, in person, and request help. Is that going to be enough to satisfy any obligation the Scottish Government may set? Does it treat woman with dignity and respect? For me, it doesn't. The implementation of any obligation is therefore crucially important.
We must also acknowledge that what we have done in North Ayrshire secondary schools, and what the Scottish Government are talking about doing with colleges and universities, does not end period poverty. Yes, it gives access to pupils and students and that is a positive step but what about their family? What about their neighbours who are also struggling? In North Ayrshire I would like to see our scheme rolled out into leisure facilities and other venues but more importantly I support Monica Lennon's call for a universal approach to sanitary provision across Scotland. That’s why I support the period poverty bill and have responded to the consultation. It is why I am asking you to support it too and make your voice heard by completing the consultation before the deadline on 8th December.
I am not quite sure when period poverty was first heard of by me, or the first time our organisation’s local MSP Monica Lennon’s campaign first came to my attention. What I do remember is thinking of how normalised the plight of managing the cost and impact of menstruation was, and how could we have missed it.
In an environment where we work daily to resist normalisation of abuse, sexism and misogyny I was disappointed that this known issue had slipped under the radar. That is not to say that on a scale of ‘picking our fights’ at work, we can’t be forgiven in our own normalisation of this plight, but still….
The plight of period poverty has resonated.
Does resonation come on the back of delighting in someone else picking up the sisterhood slack as we work on the front line? Or is it sheer gratitude that there is a campaign that is so ‘bloody’ useful to women? Or does it resonate because it is such a damming indictment of our ‘progressive’ society that this exists as an issue at all? I imagine it is a collection of all of the above, with an added frustration at the sheer indignity of the issue.
Indignity is all too identifiable within the confines of the work we do, so to consider the ramifications of period poverty is to acknowledge an ever extending reach of abasement.
‘Hunt the last tampon or towel’ will be a familiar trial to many, as will the chase to get supplies between our friend ‘flow’s’ regular visit. Familiar to will be panicked rounds with friends or colleagues to see who can come to your rescue. Such imposition is for many fleeting and resolved by restocking and finding the nearest facility to get sorted, free to continue onto your daily. What if you don’t have the scope to restock? How do you go about your daily when you do not have the luxury of sanitary wears? At this point such an essential item really must feel like a luxury?
I recall a case where the perpetrator refused to provide money for the purchase any sanitary products and ‘waste his money on her’. This not being enough, the perpetrator also removed all underwear and clothing for her bottom half from the home when she was menstruating thus rendering her not only house bound but bathroom bound.
Consider now the work in women’s aid organisations throughout the country. We work to empower women whose world has shrunk in order for them to survive, recover and thrive. We work to undo the loss of confidence and self-worth and to lessen living anxieties of trauma. We work to facilitate safe space for her to stretch into herself and the world around her. We work to assist in regaining of control and self-confidence. We work to eradicate control and oppression of women.
Within our field of work period poverty is at worse a further presentation of coercive control, at best an expression of societal disregard of females’ basic right to be free to participate in her daily life. This is why period poverty is important to us at WASLER; this is why it has resonated so.
CEO Women's Aid South Lanarkshire and East Refrewshire
 In March 2016, Parliament created legislation to eliminate the tampon VAT. It is expected to go into effect by April 2018.
Universal access to menstrual products is absolutely crucial for all people that menstruate, but especially for young and trans people - two groups disproportionately affected by the stigma surrounding periods and period poverty.
Periods are still a very taboo topic within our society, and young people who menstruate can often feel ashamed to talk about them, even though they are such a significant part of many people’s lives.
Menstruation can start as early as nine or ten, and last until you are in your fifties – or even later. The embarrassment they feel is only magnified when they do not have access to the necessary products, such as tampons and pads.
Menstrual products are incredibly expensive, which is a huge issue for young people as many of them cannot get jobs due to education and other responsibilities, and you can feel like a huge inconvenience asking for money for menstrual products, particularly if you are from a low-income family. Even with many of the major supermarkets now covering the ‘Tampon Tax’, menstrual products can still cost upwards of two pounds, a cost inaccessible for many.
Period poverty is detrimental to every part of a young person’s life, especially when it comes to education and socialising with friends - two things that are imperative to development and growth as a person. Without universal and free access to menstrual products, young people have difficulty doing anything – either not leaving the house or having to use makeshift products. Individuals I have spoken to have told me that they have used toilet paper, or even a sock wrapped around their underwear, as a makeshift pad when they couldn’t afford to buy the real products. This is clearly very unhygienic and potentially even dangerous for their health.
Many young people must make the choice between buying lunch that day, or being able to afford the products that enable them to do everything they want to do. This quite clearly isn’t a world we want to be living in, young people shouldn’t have to go hungry or risk their health because they do not have access to the products they need.
The problem is only exacerbated further for trans people that menstruate. Periods are regarded as a “women’s issue” and highly feminised within our society. If you do not identify as a woman, yet still menstruate, feminine associations with menstruation can make your gender feel very invalidated and may heighten your gender dysphoria, the significant and valid distress trans people feel due to their body not reflecting the gender they know themselves to truly be. Buying menstrual products can heighten these feelings, as they are perceived to be items only for women.
As a transgender young person, menstruation and discussions of period poverty can leave me feeling both dysphoric and isolated as my voice often isn’t heard or respected, but it is absolutely imperative that there is universal access to menstrual products for everyone.
Period poverty can have long-lasting impact on a person’s life, affecting their confidence and self-esteem, and if they are missing school due to a lack of available and free products, potentially an effect on their future life chances and career options.
Universal access, as Monica Lennon MSP’s Bill proposes, would have a long-lasting and positive impact on so many lives, not just for young and transgender people. It is crucial that everyone supports it.