Edinburgh, Scotland : Scotland has become the first country to provide free sanitary products to students at schools, colleges and universities, an effort to banish “period poverty,” in which girls and women miss out on their studies because they cannot afford protection.
The government last week announced a program costing 5.2 million pounds, or about $6.4 million, to supply 395,000 students with essential sanitary products every month, beginning in September.
“In a country as rich as Scotland, it’s unacceptable that anyone should struggle to buy basic sanitary products,” Aileen Campbell, the communities secretary, said in a statement on Friday.
She said the investment would provide “these essential products” to those who need them “in a sensitive and dignified way, which will make it easier for students to fully focus on their studies.”
The decision has prompted politicians to urge other parts of the United Kingdom to introduce similar programs.
According to Plan International UK, a girls’ rights charity, thousands of young women across Britain miss school regularly because they cannot afford to buy products for their period, and more than one in 10 girls have had to improvise sanitary products — by using old clothes or newspapers, for example.
Deirdre Kingston, a spokeswoman on equality for the Labour Party in Ireland, called for the plan to be expanded in her country, too.
“We know anecdotally that some schools and teachers provide sanitary products to students, however, this is often done in an ad hoc basis with no real structure,” she said on Tuesday. “The government should seek to follow Scotland’s lead and provide free sanitary products to all schools and colleges.”
Ms. Kingston also said that the program should be extended to low-income women, as they often found themselves unable to afford essential sanitary products, too.
Women’s charities have long campaigned to abolish the 5 percent tax on sanitary products in Britain, but the government has not been allowed to because of European Union rules that class sanitary items as “luxury, nonessential” products.
In 2015, George Osborne, then the British chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the £15 million in taxes raised through the sale of sanitary products would be spent to help women’s charities.
The decision caused widespread outrage because of the implication that only women were being taxed to provide the aid.
Last year, supermarket chains such as Tesco decided to cover the 5 percent tax on sanitary products. Other suppliers reduced prices on hundreds of products to cancel out the tax.
To bring attention to the issue, Danielle Rowley, a Scottish member of the British Parliament, broke a taboo by deliberately arriving late to a debate in the House of Commons in June. She apologized, saying that she was having her period and that it cost her £25 a week.
The Scottish initiative is seen as a way to contribute to a more open conversation about the issue and to reduce the stigma associated with periods. The government said it had worked closely with partners like Universities Scotland to make sure the products were available to students.
“Periods are a part of life,” said Susannah Lane, the head of public affairs at Universities Scotland, which represents the country’s higher education institutions.
“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 at university, so this is a positive step,” she added.
In the United States, sales tax on tampons and other sanitary products vary from state to state. In 2016, New York became the 11th state without a tax on menstrual products when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation eliminating local and state sales taxes on them. The news came a week after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed historic legislation that will ensure free tampons and pads are available in all public schools, homeless shelters and jails across the city. Of the other 10 other states that don’t tax menstrual products, five have no sales tax in the first place (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon) and five exempt menstrual products (Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania).
The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years’ time of making sure you have a pad or tampon, finding a makeshift solution if you don’t, and managing pain and discomfort.
And lately, women — and transgender and nonbinary people who menstruate — are talking about it in public more than ever before. There are new products and services on the market, from menstrual cups to period underwear to medicinal cannabis and “period coaches.” Globally, advocates are pushing for recognition of a woman’s right to manage her period with dignity. And in the United States, activists are bringing the concept of “menstrual equity” into the public debate.
“Menstrual equity” refers to equal access to hygiene products, but also to education about reproductive health. And it’s the focus of a variety of new laws and policies to provide menstrual products in prisons, shelters, schools and even on Capitol Hill.
Advocates are also urging states to exempt menstrual hygiene products from sales tax, arguing that they’re a necessity.
Increased media coverage and some high-profile episodes — like Kiran Gandhi bleeding freely as she ran the London Marathon in 2015 and a backlash over Instagram deleting a photo of a period stain — have accelerated the shift.
Last month, a member of Britain’s Parliament announced in the House of Commons that she was menstruating, to make a point about “period poverty.”
A New York congressman recently got into a spat with House administrators over whether he could expense $37.16 worth of tampons for his staff and visitors.
And India said on Saturday that it would eliminate a controversial 12 percent tax on sanitary pads after a campaign by advocacy groups and celebrities. Canada also abolished a sales tax on such products in 2015, and an Australian push to do the same made progress this year.
Laws in several U.S. states now mandate access to menstrual products in correctional facilities, shelters and schools. Two prison reform bills in the Senate — including the First Step Act, which is backed by the White House — include provisions on access to menstrual hygiene products, after complaints that the facilities were not providing an adequate supply. And the Justice Department directed federal prisons to provide inmates with free menstrual products last year.
In the House, Representative Grace Meng, Democrat of New York, has introduced two related bills. One aims to make periods more affordable, in part by allowing employees to use flexible spending accounts to buy pads and tampons, and requiring companies with more than 100 employees to provide them. The other would require manufacturers to disclose ingredients in such products.
In the last two years, New York, Illinois, Florida and Connecticut have abolished sales tax on menstrual products. That brings the number of states that tax such products to 36 — and lawmakers in two dozen of those states have introduced bills to nix the tax.
There are similar efforts underway around the world, including in Britain, where the campaign to “ax the tax” got caught up in the Brexit debate. Laura Coryton, a young British activist, started a petition called “Stop Taxing Periods” in 2014 that amassed over 300,000 signatures.
But lawmakers were unable to repeal the tax because of European Union rules, and it became a rallying point for the pro-Brexit camp. Lawmakers have pledged to abolish the tax once Brexit is complete. Until then, taxes from menstrual products are being put into a special fund for women’s health.
Canada also abolished sales tax on menstrual products in 2015, and an Australian push to do the same made progress this year.
Kenya and Uganda abolished sales tax on menstrual hygiene products, while Zimbabwe subsidizes local manufacturers. The Kenyan government also provides funding for pads in schools.