“In a society as rich as Scotland, no one should have to suffer the indignity of not having the means to meet their basic needs.”
So said Scotland’s communities secretary Aileen Campbell this week, as she announced a second £4million tranche of Scottish Government funding to enable councils across Scotland to provide free menstrual products to those who need them. This new initiative extends the £5.2million provision made last summer for free and universal access to menstrual products in all Scottish schools, colleges and universities.
These policies have taken the Scottish Government further than any other national government in ending the inequality of period poverty. For those of us living south of the border, the contrast with the inaction of Westminster is particularly stark, where instead of pioneering approaches to alleviate poverty, the government’s austerity agenda has instead “inflicted great misery unnecessarily” (as human rights expert and UN rapporteur Philip Alston reported following his 12-day visit to the UK to assess poverty last year).
As is so often the case with the Scottish diaspora, I could write forever about the ‘richness’ of Scottish society - please, don’t get me started on the beautiful, agonising hope that only a Scottish fan watching the Six Nations can experience, the unmitigated joy of dampening a hangover with a can of Irn Bru, the gloriously unapologetic feminism (and rather good tennis) of Sir Andy Murray… my list is endless.
But I don’t really think Aileen Campbell was thinking about the fact that Scotland produced the best James Bond, or the other cultural blessings us Scots so cherish, when she explained that period poverty should be unconscionable in a “rich” society. And so, when it comes to the fight for menstrual equity, the superiority of Scottish policy over English sticks in the craw. Because, by any financial measure, England too is a “rich society”. And what’s more, human rights are universal. Your right to education, your right to health, your right to dignity - none should depend on whether you live north or south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Outside of Scotland, however, free provision of menstrual products is piecemeal, and often dependent on charitable organisations. The Welsh government pledged £1million to tackle period poverty in schools last year, with some councils elsewhere in the UK (Milton Keynes, Leeds, Bristol) also undertaking to address period poverty experienced by children. Other councils, such as in Stoke-on-Trent and Derry City, are beginning to supply free products in public buildings too. But generally, it is the third sector that is filling the gaps. The Red Box Project (for whom I am a coordinator in Hackney) uses donations from local communities to supply more than 2,000 red boxes filled with donated products and spare underwear to schools and youth clubs across the UK; there are countless others working tirelessly and determinedly to mitigate the effects of rising poverty and an indifferent Government.
But despite their efforts, this patchwork of forward-thinking local authorities and volunteer-led community projects is just not enough. Access to adequate menstrual protection should not depend on your postcode, or the kindness of strangers. We need central Government action.
One young campaigner has been asking for Westminster to step up since her 2017 petition for free period products in schools went viral. Amika George’s petition has gained over 260,000 signatures and, in December 2017, she inspired over 2,000 young people to gather outside Parliament to demand change as part of her #FreePeriods movement. Now, tired of the lack of meaningful policy change, she has teamed up with the Red Box Project to launch a new legal campaign, calling on the Government to comply with its obligations under the law to provide equal access to education for all. The right to education is a fundamental human right, but 10% of young women cannot afford menstrual products and many miss school for days each month, or use ‘makeshift’ products from toilet roll, rags or newspaper instead. In the words of filmmaker Ken Loach, “If you’re not angry about it, what kind of person are you?”
The disenfranchisement that begins when a child misses out on their education has an enduring, insidious effect for a lifetime. And children often have less agency than adults to try to alleviate their precarious situation - they are much less likely to have direct recourse to funds or to be individually referred to a food bank. Our first step in the fight to end period poverty is therefore to ensure that menstrual products are freely available in all of the UK’s schools and colleges. No child should have to miss school because they have their period.
Despite the reputation for dour, anti-English sentiment that dogs us Scots, I actually believe in England’s ‘rich’ society too. Philip Alston reported that “compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach” by the Government, but I know from my work with the Red Box Project that kindness still abounds in our civil society. And now we must harness that kindness to make change. Please join the #FreePeriods movement.
Gemma is a director of Free Periods Limited and a volunteer coordinator for the Red Box Project Hackney. You can find out more about the #FreePeriods legal campaign here