Earlier this term, the Scottish government announced a new £5.2 million funding programme to enable all schools, colleges and universities in Scotland to provide free sanitary products for students. It’s fair to say that this was met by worldwide acclaim for tackling an issue that until now has been cloaked in stigma and hidden from mainstream discussion. Scotland is leading the world with this initiative as the first country to introduce free sanitary provision in our educational institutions.
Planning for the rollout of this policy was well underway last December when Plan International UK published a report into period poverty and stigma that made for horrendous reading. For many young people in the UK, menstruation was an active barrier to participation in day-to-day life, including their education. Almost half of girls reported having to miss a full day of school because of their period, with 59 per cent of them having covered by making up an alternative excuse. Perhaps the most worrying statistics concerned the use of sanitary products, with 10 per cent stating they had been unable to afford sanitary products and 12 per cent having improvised sanitary products owing to affordability issues.
Sharing good practice
Reading these figures, it is clear that there are two distinct but linked issues that have to be tackled concurrently. The first is the most pressing and that is ensuring that individuals have access to sanitary products. In developing the Access to Sanitary Products programme, the Scottish government was clear that a piecemeal approach was unacceptable.
It has therefore been a genuine pleasure to see different institutions across the country sharing their methods of distributing products to their students – from baskets in bathrooms and removing the coin function of dispensing machines to innovations supporting students who are distance learners or spend significant time off campus fulfilling the work placement criteria of their course.
Saying no to stigma
The second issue is around tackling the stigma of menstruation and this is the more insidious, more challenging issue to address and through which to overcome collective social discomfort.
It is all very well ensuring that students and school pupils have access to sanitary products but we have to change the taboo culture around this normal, natural body function to recognise that menstruation is experienced differently by different individuals. It is critical that all young people receive robust and relatable PSE that empowers them to understand what is happening not only to themselves but also to their peers.
If you believe the adverts, there are some women who rollerskate in white linen trousers with nary a concern about their period. For many others though, fluctuating hormones can have a detrimental effect on concentration, mental health and physical wellbeing that all too often is not fully appreciated, even by the person experiencing these symptoms.
And so, the most exciting thing about the Scottish government’s work on period poverty is the manner in which the public consciousness has been awoken to this issue. Pleasingly, any debate that I have seen has been conducted respectfully and openly, with an acknowledgement that the status quo isn’t good enough. It’s heartening to see that this topic can be treated with such respect, and our challenge now is to build on that honest and open discussion to ensure that stigma and embarrassment around menstruation is a thing of the past.
Vonnie Sandlan is a senior policy officer at Colleges Scotland