Lead officers: Angela Alexander, NUS Scotland Women’s Officer 2016/17
Shuwanna Aaron, NUS Scotland Women’s Officer 2017/19
Research by Plan International UK suggests up to 15% of girls in the UK have struggled to afford sanitary products, and 10% have been completely unable to afford sanitary products, at one time or another. 14% have had to borrow from a friend; and almost 20% have had to use a less suitable product because cost was an issue.
And yet we live in one of the world’s richest countries and that any woman or girl has to face the indignity of not being able to afford the basic sanitary products she needs should be a source of shame for us as a society.
A campaign therefore began to encourage the Scottish Government to treat access to free sanitary products as a priority, ensuring that no one has to “experience the indignity” of going without sanitary products. No one should have to have to experience the indignity of having to go without vital sanitary products they simply cannot afford - a story we’ve heard from too many students in recent years. Providing free sanitary products will radically improve the lives of many students who currently experience the financial burden of paying for vital sanitary products.
Our liberation campaigns have led the way in tackling issues whose effects are felt far beyond our universities and colleges. Having raised the issue regularly with government and encouraged them to treat it as a priority, we secured a seat on the Scottish Government’s Period Poverty Working Group and continued working with members to call for the free provision of sanitary products for all students who menstruate, regardless of their gender identity or immigration status.
Our students’ associations, and many communities, pioneered projects to provide free sanitary products, but stretched budgets meant this was not a sustainable option in the long term. Funding of these products would provide clear recognition from government of the impact that these unfair costs have on students’ already stretched finances, and in turn on the health and wellbeing of those students who have periods.
The campaign’s main asks were therefore focused on the provision of a sustained and strategic investment in tackling period poverty amongst women and girls in education in particular, with increased awareness and understanding of menstruation. Working with the NUS Trans campaign we also fought to ensure that every student who menstruates had access to products, however they define their gender.
In September 2017 the Scottish government published its Programme for Government, including a commitment to fund access to free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities.
In August 2018 the government announced a £5.2 million scheme to tackle period poverty becoming the first government in the world to make free sanitary products available to all pupils and students. The government stated its commitment to making sure it tackled barriers which can get in the way of young people fulfilling their potential in education.
The scheme’s delivery required the partnership of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council to ensure the availability of products in a sensitive and dignified way. In January 2019 the government announced a further £4 million of funding to support the scheme, followed by a further £3.5 million to universities and colleges in Jun 2019.
In February 2020, the Scottish Government announced support for the general principles of the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. The bill, introduced by Monica Lennon MSP, would put in place a legal duty on Scottish Ministers to ensure that period products are made available free of charge on a universal basis; require education providers to make period products available free of charge in toilets and enable Scottish Ministers to place a duty on other specific public service bodies to provide free period products. The bill as drafted, could cost around £24 million per year to deliver. The bill passed into law on 24 November 2020 making period products free for all in Scotland.
This major change in policy was the culmination of years of effort and stimulated increased action amongst fellow NUS nations to continue the campaign for government to take this issue seriously.
In March 2018, the Welsh Government announced a £1.1 million, 2-year scheme, to help local authorities to tackle period poverty in its communities where levels of deprivation were highest. The scheme included improvements to facilities and equipment in schools to ensure that all girls and young women can access good sanitary facilities when they need them.
In April 2019, the Welsh Government announced further funding of over £3.36 million to address period dignity and period poverty in Wales. Local authorities were awarded £2.3 million to provide free period products to learners in Welsh schools, and a further £220,000 to tackle period poverty within their communities. £845,000 was provided to Further Education Institutions to provide free period products to learners. The same level of funding will be available for the 2020 to 2021 financial year.
In January 2020, the UK Government announced that all state-maintained schools and 16 to 19 education organisations in England will have access to free period products in their place of study. Girls, non-binary and transgender learners who have periods would all be able to access this scheme.
While still not available in higher education beyond Scotland, these changes in policy are an important step towards eradicating period poverty amongst students. Periods are a part of life, but they shouldn’t be a point of inequality, compromise someone’s quality of life or be a distraction from making the very most of time spent in education.
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