Free period products, when and where we need them

In this blog, Engender's Communications and Engagement Manager, Alys Mumford, talks about our continuing work to ensure access to free period products.

A common trope seen in film and TV is a woman being caught short in a nightclub toilet and being met with dozens of new friends proffering tampons and pads. And while I do have experience on both sides of this scene, I also have memories of sneaking a pad up the sleeve of my school jumper when going to the loo, wearing a hoodie tied round my waist on a freezing day in case I was leaking, using a code word to talk about tampons on holiday (‘cereal bars’ in case you’re wondering, and no I can’t remember why), and stressing out when a borrowed tampon had an applicator which I’d never used before.

Lack of access to appropriate period products can also lead to girls missing school, women having to take days off from paid work, people using unhygienic alternatives such as newspaper, and withdrawing from leisure activities.

This week, we’ve been talking to the Scottish Government about the Draft Guidance for the Responsible Bodies required to make free products available for anybody who needs them under the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021. While getting the Bill passed in the last parliament was a great success for feminist campaigners across the country, without clear guidance for local authorities and other bodies providing free period products, we were worried that there would be a postcode lottery in who could access products, and how.

Engender supports universal access to free period products whenever and wherever they are needed. We know that women (and some trans men and non-binary people) may need targeted support in accessing period products for a variety of reasons. While the Act doesn’t explicitly guarantee universal access, ‘need’ is not defined, and it is vital to recognise that women may lack access to period products because of financial poverty and / or time poverty, gynaecological health conditions or the menopause that require more products than usual, or simply being ‘caught short’.

So while we’ve been considering what guidance should underpin the provision of free period products we’ve kept a number of principles in mind.

Period products should be available without people having to ask at a reception, use convoluted coded messages, or scour a building for the one toilet which has products in.

How to ensure privacy and dignity

Period products should be available without people having to ask at a reception, use convoluted coded messages, or scour a building for the one toilet which has products in.

Access to products in a wide range of spaces should be prioritised. This includes in women’s, men’s and gender-neutral toilets, and individual cubicles, as well as in non-bathroom settings. Women collecting products should not have to enter spaces which could feel or be considered inappropriate, and men or non-binary people who need products for themselves or who are collecting products for another person should also be able to access them easily without having disclose their private circumstances.

How to ensure immediate access for those who need it

The best way to ensure access to period products is to have a range of products physically available in multiple places. Obviously, during the Covid-19 pandemic this became impracticable, and voucher schemes or online ordering were successfully created as part of existing voluntary provision of free products to ensure people could still access products. While this flexibility is important, it’s vital that it doesn’t replace immediate physical access - even the lightest touch request processes may act as a barrier to people who need additional privacy or have their access to deliveries controlled.

Access to period products shouldn’t be linked to any other social security payments or support schemes. It is right that certain groups are recognised as needing additional support, but it is imperative that any targeted provision should not be contingent on access to another form of support or entitlement. We know that women will often forgo their own needs to provide for families, and a blunt means-tested system of provision will miss women and girls who need to access period products. Additionally, access points targeted at specific groups (for example accessible toilets) should not require individuals to ‘prove’ their status or need nor include measures that amount to barriers.

How to ensure choice in types of product available

Nobody should have to justify to anyone else how they manage their period. Wherever products are made available, there should be at the very least a choice of tampons, pads, and a reusable option (like a mooncup or washable pad), and ideally in a range of sizes and absorbencies to acknowledge that things like menopause, pregnancy, and miscarriage can have a significant impact on your period.

Everyone’s period is unique, and we’ve been worried to hear some people suggest, for example, that young women should only have access to pads. Women and girls need access to information and a range of products to be able to make the right decisions for their bodies and lifestyles.

How to challenge period stigma and harmful gender stereotypes

The high cost and inaccessibility of period products is a gendered issue. A lack of access to period product provokes shame, discomfort, distress and health risks for women and girls, limiting their enjoyment of school, work and leisure. Period products are an additional cost for women who already have lower incomes compared with men and more limited access to resources. With women spending approximately £5,000 on tampons, pads or other sanitary products in her lifetime, ensuring that managing menstruation with dignity is a privilege reserved for those who can readily afford it.

Providing free products is helpful in reducing this stigma, but can be significantly impacted by how the schemes are implemented – both in terms of predictability and accessibility. Rather than something to be discussed in hushed tones, or hidden from sight, the normalisation of period products as essential everyday health and hygiene products would challenge the stigma of periods as ‘women’s issues’ or something to be managed in secret - enabling women and girls to concentrate fully on education, work and leisure, reducing the financial burden imposed upon them, and improving their quality of life and wellbeing.

If you want to read more about Engender’s work on the Period Products Bill, you can read our briefing from the stage 1 Bill process.

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