Time to strike a blow for equality and end period poverty

First published by The Herald on 18 February 2020

WHEN Celia Hodson and her daughters set up social enterprise Hey Girls in January 2018 their motivation was simple: they wanted to make a difference for the very many women and girls who, because they are living in poverty, cannot afford to pay for tampons or sanitary pads.

When I interviewed her later that year, Ms Hodson said she had decided to act because she could not reconcile the fact that “we were living in one of the most-wealthy countries in the world but some girls still couldn’t get access to products”. “I was a single parent and brought my children up on benefits,” she said. “Like all families that are hard up I managed my best but I experienced period poverty. I came from a lived experience and wanted to do something about it.”

She has done stellar work since, with the business selling millions of boxes of high-quality tampons, pads and menstrual cups and using the profits generated to donate identical products to charities and food banks. The aim is not just to ensure that no woman has to suffer the indignity of stuffing their pants with loo roll – or the health risk of using a product for too long – but to raise awareness about how period poverty can affect people’s lives.

This week the organisation launched its latest campaign, stocking supermarket shelves with bogus brand UNsanitary to highlight how one in 10 women and girls are forced to use socks, newspapers and toilet roll to soak up their menstrual flow. “UNsanitary pads is a fake brand, designed to shock,” the company says. “It makes the crippling period poverty these girls and young women still face across the UK relevant and real.”

It could not be more timely. Thanks to the tenacity of Labour MSP Monica Lennon, Holyrood is in the throes of debating whether free period products should be a universal right for any Scottish resident who requires them. Though the Scottish Government already funds the provision of products in schools, colleges and universities – and provides financial backing for a range of charities’ poverty-eradication work – Ms Lennon wants to see that extended.

In the introduction to a public consultation on her Period Products bill, she wrote that “it is to our shame that menstruation is still discussed in hushed voices and that menstrual healthcare and hygiene is not embedded in our health and education systems”. By making sanitary products freely available, she added, “Scotland can end the silence and stigma that surrounds menstruation” and create “a fairer and more equal society”.

Yet even though 96 per cent of those who responded to the consultation supported those aims, earlier this month Holyrood’s cross-party Local Government and Communities Committee rejected the bill. The SNP and Tory members voted it down on the basis of cost, with only the Green and Labour members giving it their backing.

Of course it is only right and proper that every penny of public spending should be properly accounted for, and the disparity between the £9.7 million Ms Lennon reckons the scheme would cost to run and the Government’s own estimate of £24m is significant.

But in a country where every one of us can, if we so choose, get a free prescription for dandruff shampoo, haemorrhoid cream or mouthwash, it was a shameful decision to make, not least because it gave the impression that sanitary pads and tampons are luxury items that women can somehow do without.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Girlguiding Scotland’s Carolyn Fox-Mackay said last week, period products are “essential products and no one should miss out on opportunities, face isolation or embarrassment simply because they can’t afford them”. Putting in place a safety net for those who need it would not be profligacy, it would be the mark of a truly civilised society.

Ministers are now due to vote on the bill at the end of this month, with a group of 70 SNP members urging their party to back it. Newly elected Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, meanwhile, has indicated that he will support it. That does not mean it will necessarily pass, though, with some attitudes around menstruation, poverty and women’s rights appearing depressingly entrenched.

Indeed, there are some who believe period poverty is something women should just endure or, bizarrely, take some kind of strength from. Just last month the BBC radio presenter Liz Kershaw won herself as many backers as detractors when she responded to a campaign to put free products in English schools by saying her mother had “had to use old rags which my grandma boiled-washed and she re-used”.

“How did she ever manage to get a scholarship to grammar school, go to university and become a headteacher without free tampons?” she asked, as if we shouldn’t expect things to be better now than they were in the aftermath of the Second World War; as if women like her mother hadn’t spent decades earning the right for us all to have a bit more dignity in our lives.

Then there are those who don’t believe period poverty is a thing, that because supermarkets sell own-brand products at bargain basement prices it is a lie for anyone to claim they cannot afford them. Yet as simple as it may be to dismiss other people’s suffering in this way, the fact remains that even a few pennies is an insurmountable sum when there are no pennies left to give; that when faced with buying cheap tampons for herself or a loaf of bread for her children a mother will always choose the latter.

Celia Hodson summed this up during our interview when she said that for too many people life is “so vulnerable”. “There are people who are barely managing and living very fragile lives,” she said. “If there’s a blip it puts their budget onto a knife edge.”

She also praised the Scottish Government for recognising that vulnerability and “having a crack” at trying to eradicate it. A year and a half later and it is clear that that crack has not been enough, though. The Government now has it in its gift to rectify that; it will be a sad day for equality if it chooses not to.