Scotland is now a big step closer to becoming the first country in the world to make tampons and pads free to anyone who needs them.
The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill passed through the first of three stages in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday by a vote of 112-0, with one abstention.
Its champion is Monica Lennon, a Scottish Parliament member who has led a years-long campaign to build support for the measure. She first proposed the bill in 2017.
“This is an amazing victory for everyone who has campaigned for free universal access to period products and who has convinced the Scottish Government to back this ground-breaking Bill,” Lennon told the Daily Record after the vote.
“Scotland has already taken important steps towards improving access to period products and tackling stigma but legislation will guarantee rights, ensure that current initiatives continue in future on a universal basis, and will help us achieve period dignity for all,” she added.
The legislation would create the legal obligation for the Scottish government to make sure period products are available for free for those who need them. The Scottish government estimates the cost to implement the legislation at £24 million annually (about $31 million).
The bill now goes to the second stage, in which members of Parliament can propose amendments. While the measure passed with near unanimity, some members warned that there is still much work to do before it is final.
The bill aims to alleviate “period poverty,” in which girls and women have difficulty accessing or affording menstrual products. One member of Parliament cited a 2019 report on the issue suggesting that while many women can afford to purchase their sanitary products, “those who most need the free products are the ones who are almost guaranteed not to ask for them.”
Since 2018, the Scottish government has made period products freely available in schools, colleges and universities — another global first. That program followed a survey of 2,000 students in Scotland that found 1 in 4 respondents struggled to access sanitary products. Last month, England launched a similar program making tampons and pads free at state schools and colleges. In the U.S., several states have moved to outlaw taxes on menstrual products.
In a world where women’s periods are still rarely discussed in public, the two-hour debate over the bill in the Scottish Parliament was remarkable.
Topics ranged from why toilet paper and bins for menstrual products are required in restrooms but not menstrual products themselves, to how to ensure that women who experience endometriosis and heavy bleeding get access to the products they require, to the broad range of support the bill has garnered — including among men.
Member of Parliament Neil Findlay noted that the bill has broken down “the barrier of our inability to discuss such serious issues about our health and well-being in the media or in public without embarrassment, reticence and discomfort.”
“It has allowed people to talk about the issues without embarrassment or stigma, which is a very good thing,” he said. “It was absolutely fantastic to see male industrial workers from Unite the union — members of my own union; I see some of them in the gallery — out there campaigning on period poverty. Long may that continue.”
Member Alison Johnstone asked, “Why is it in 2020 that toilet paper is seen as a necessity but period products aren’t?”
“This is so often characterized as a women’s issue, but it is not. It is a social justice issue, an equalities issue, and a rights issue,” she said. “It is estimated that a woman will, over her lifetime, spend approximately £5,000 on period products. Being financially penalized for a natural bodily function is not equitable or just. Being unable to afford or access period products denies women access to education, work, sport and so much more.”
This issue has become a popular one in Scotland, and Lennon is far from the only one working on it.
In 2018, three female fans of the Celtic soccer team — Erin Slaven, Mikaela McKinley and Orlaith Duffy — started an effort to get the team’s stadium in Glasgow to provide free sanitary products. They christened their campaign On The Ball.
“One of our aims at the start was to remove the stigma and get people talking about it,” Slaven said last year. “It’s one of the most normal things in the world but it was radical for us to bring up periods in football grounds. That would have been unheard of in the past.”
It worked. Within weeks, Celtic Park began providing free sanitary products, and more soccer clubs in the U.K. soon followed.
“No matter the financial background, sometimes it’s just that there’s no products to hand,” Slaven said. “You don’t have to turn up to the football with your own soap or toilet roll, so why should girls have to pay for something out of a machine, or ask their parent for money?”
Between efforts like Lennon’s bill and the On The Ball campaign, Scotland has turned periods from a stigmatized subject to a selling point in just a few short years.
On Tuesday, the country’s global marketing arm posted a video to Twitter touting Scotland’s global leadership in making period products accessible.
“The way I see it, if you want something to change, you can’t just hope someone else will fight for it,” a young woman says in the video. “We have to stand up for what we believe in, together.”