Feminine Hygiene Products

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th September 2016.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01493, in the name of Monica Lennon, on feminine hygiene products. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I call Monica Lennon to open the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the burden of the cost of feminine hygiene products on women and girls in the Central Scotland region and throughout Scotland; further notes that the average woman uses around 12,000 feminine hygiene products in their lifetime; recognises that these products are a necessity to maintaining good health; considers that some women and girls may be unable to buy vital feminine hygiene products due to the cost; commends charities such as Scottish Women’s Aid, The Trussell Trust and Barnardo’s for the great work they are doing to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge to women and girls who struggle to pay for them, and recognises the work being done internationally on the issue of menstrual equity, for example in New York City, where feminine hygiene products are now free in schools, prisons and homeless shelters.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead this discussion on access to feminine hygiene products in Scotland. I say “discussion” because I am encouraged by the potential for consensus that I sense is building around the issue, which is evidenced by the cross-party support for the motion. I hope that the debate will help to raise awareness of the financial and health inequalities that are linked to menstruation.

The poverty that austerity creates has a disproportionate impact on women, and period poverty is a secret but real occurrence of shame and embarrassment for women and girls. This distressing gendered inequality must be confronted, and I am optimistic that women and girls throughout Scotland will be able to look to their Scottish Parliament tonight and know that this generation of MSPs will rise to the challenge.

To remain healthy and safe during menstruation, women and girls need adequate access to tampons, sanitary towels and related products, but it is an uncomfortable truth that not every woman and girl in Scotland can afford to buy essential feminine hygiene products when they need them. My discussions with organisations such as Barnardo’s Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and the Trussell Trust confirm that. Just today, a former food bank manager in Dundee told me the heartbreaking story of a young woman who declined the offer of sanitary products because she had not had a period in seven months due to lack of food and malnourishment. Poverty is wreaking havoc with women’s bodies.

I have been having private conversations with volunteers at food banks and with teachers in communities across Lanarkshire and Falkirk in the Central Scotland region that I represent. Their stories have convinced me that this is a national issue and one that a decent and fair-minded Scottish society cannot ignore. I have also been following with interest the growing menstrual equity movement across the globe. My feminist heart did a little dance when New York City Council voted 49 to 0 to approve a measure to give women and girls in schools, prisons and homeless shelters access to feminine hygiene products free of charge. After a successful pilot in Queens and the Bronx that brought free pads and tampons to students in 25 public high schools, the Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, posted a Facebook video in which he said:

“Girls shouldn’t have to miss class because of their period.”

I hope that we can all endorse that message.

Why are we having this debate today? At the beginning of the summer, I asked the Scottish Government some questions. I asked what recent action it had taken to assess the affordability of feminine hygiene products and the cost of periods to women and girls. I also asked whether it considered feminine hygiene to be a health issue and what action it was taking to tackle the stigma around periods. Last month, in her reply, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Shona Robison, advised that no specific work had been done to examine the issue.

I found the reply in full rather disappointing on a number of counts: first, that no consideration was being given to the lived experience of women and girls in poverty in relation to menstruation; secondly, that the link between feminine hygiene, poverty and health was dismissed; and thirdly, that the Scottish Government did not think there was any particular stigma around periods in Scotland. The fourth, and perhaps most concerning, part of the reply was the suggestion that food banks were the solution for women and girls in need of sanitary products.

I pay tribute to Daniel Sanderson, political reporter at

The Herald

, not just for paying attention to parliamentary questions but for taking an interest and reporting the issue in a way that has allowed the debate to open up. In particular, I am grateful to the team at Engender and to Nicki Wray at Barnardo’s Scotland for speaking out about the need for the Scottish Government to undertake further work, build an evidence base and take appropriate action.

I am grateful, too, to the Minister for Public Health and Sport, Aileen Campbell, for her recent reply in the chamber when she committed to listen to women’s organisations and look into the issues that have been raised. Women and girls in Scotland need the Scottish Government to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the accessibility and affordability of feminine hygiene products. I hope that we can get a firm commitment on that.

I am grateful to members across the chamber, including Gail Ross, Gillian Martin and Elaine Smith, who have been particularly encouraging, and to Councillor Lesley McDonald in South Lanarkshire for assisting me with local fact-finding visits. In all our communities, women are helping women daily. I recognise the efforts made by groups, including women for independence, to collect donations of sanitary products.

Debates about what is now termed “menstrual equity” are not new. Back in 1986, Gloria Steinem wrote that, if men got periods, they

“would brag about how long and how much”; boys would talk about their menstruation as the beginning of their manhood, with “Gifts” and “religious ceremonies”; and

“Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

Light-hearted period jokes aside, there is a matter of serious principle here. Menstrual care is healthcare. Women’s rights are human rights.

I finish with three questions. First, what use is a free prescription for period pain relief if low pay and insecure zero-hour contracts are forcing menstruating women to stuff their pants with toilet paper? Secondly, what difference will the attainment challenge make to a girl sitting in class with the embarrassment of a saturated sanitary towel between her legs? Finally, should we really say “Try a foodbank” to a mother and her daughters fleeing domestic violence, when there is no guarantee whatsoever that the donation pile will include the tampons and towels that they urgently need?

It has been a privilege to open the debate and I look forward to the Scottish Government—and indeed the entire Scottish Parliament—proving that we are ready and willing to tackle this gendered inequality, so that terms such as “on the rag” are banished to the history books.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

What kind of societal issue is access to period products? It is not just a single issue. It is, of course, a poverty issue. Households with low incomes will prioritise how they spend what little money they have. Top of that priority list will be food, then rent, then heat and power. Women managing a household for which getting food on the table is a struggle every week simply will not have the money to spend on period products. Targeted provision for women on low incomes could be an option. At the extreme end of poverty, we have women on the streets without homes who, every month, must find a way to cope with the demeaning and distressing situation of bleeding for five days with no access to their own bathroom, much less towels and tampons.

It is also an attainment issue. Due to lack of access to period products, young women from low-income families are often forced to miss school. If we do the arithmetic, a young woman with no access to period products may stay at home until her period is over, which could be around five days a month. Added up, that could lead to a young women with no access to tampons or pads missing a quarter of her schooling. Targeted school provision could also be an option. Monica Lennon mentioned the situation in New York, which made my heart sing, too.

It is also a women’s health issue. When access to period products is limited, women may not change their tampons or pads as often as is safe. Toxic shock and sepsis are more likely to happen to women on low incomes, who do not have the luxury of changing tampons every couple of hours, as is recommended.

It can also be a control and abuse issue. Often women who are subjected to domestic abuse or coercive control by their partner are denied access to anything that is simply for their own use. I was shocked to discover that often-unspoken issue when I met the Cyrenians in Aberdeen, who provide support for people from a range of challenging circumstances. Their domestic abuse support officer told me that many women do not have access to period products because their partner stands between them and such access through a range of abusive behaviours, such as prohibiting their purchase or use, rationing their availability to control their partner’s movement, giving access to a range of hygiene products only in exchange for sex, or simply keeping a woman from accessing her own money so that purchasing the products is impossible. Not all women who cannot buy tampons come from low-income homes.

An ideal solution would be to have open and universal access, but we must be realistic about what our national health service can afford to do in a situation where we have limited fiscal control and a set budget with significant demands on it. In an ideal world, we would have a mechanism such as a card that is available to all women to use at their discretion to access period products should they need them, similar to the C card, which gives access to free condoms.

At the SNP national council in May, we passed a motion to look into the possibility of such a mechanism. I believe that there is merit in piloting such a scheme to investigate how it could work, what the take-up would be and what the associated costs would be. Could we see a reduction in admissions to hospital, more girls in deprived areas accessing their right to education and women having more control over their health and their lives? Some creative thinking around the issue could unlock the answers.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

As the equalities spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the topic.

We are all familiar with the debate surrounding the much-opposed tampon tax this year and last, and I was pleased to see the United Kingdom Government acting decisively to rid sanitary products of their 5 per cent VAT rate. In March, UK Government leaders spurred on the debate that led to all 28 European Union leaders agreeing that individual states should have the option of removing tax from sanitary products.

Although some have accused the Government of going silent on the issue, I would like to reiterate that only this summer, minister David Gauke said during a Treasury Committee meeting in July that the Government anticipated the zero rate being in place by 1 April next year, even if it was not yet formally legislated for. In the meantime, the £15 million revenue that is raised by the tax is still being transferred to women’s charities.

We are all in agreement that sanitary products are a necessity. As a starting point, I would like to back the motion to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to the women and families who struggle to afford them, particularly when we consider that contraception is already provided free of charge.

When women and girls lack access to affordable and hygienic products they can resort to using old rags, cloths or other unhygienic materials, as Monica Lennon said. In some cases, lack of access can result in girls missing school and women avoiding their workplaces. In other cases, women resort to using the same item for a prolonged period of time, which increases their chances of developing the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome.

I was pleased to see the efforts of constituents in my region to highlight the issue, particularly for homeless women. Last year, a group of students from the University of Glasgow launched their own campaign group, called the homeless period, which advocates better access to sanitary products for homeless women. At Christmas time, the Glasgow university red alert society collected hundreds of essential toiletries, including such products, to donate to a homeless charity.

Nationally, I thank Scottish Women’s Aid, the Trussell Trust and Barnardo’s Scotland for their efforts——which Monica Lennon highlighted—in raising awareness of the issue. I support the sentiment of Monica Lennon’s motion in seeking to make feminine hygiene products accessible to those who cannot afford them.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I congratulate Monica Lennon on bringing the debate to the chamber. The issue is important for all women, and especially those who have medical conditions or are in financial hardship. That was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when Kezia Dugdale was collecting for Edinburgh Women’s Aid. She had a box in her office and she was encouraging us all to make contributions. What the organisation really needed for the women whom it was serving was toiletries and sanitary products. It was quite sad that we were collecting for those things and that they were not supplied as a very basic necessity for those women.

When people do not have the financial means to afford very basic supplies, that is a problem throughout Scotland. However, it is a bigger problem in rural Scotland because everything costs much more in the small shops that supply those areas. People who are in financial hardship cannot travel to the big towns to access cheaper products, and they sometimes pay twice as much in a rural shop as they would in a town. Bearing in mind the fact that women may use 12,000 of those products over a lifetime, that adds a huge burden on those who live in rural areas. They also have fewer opportunities to access organisations such as the Trussell Trust, whose work in supplying such products to women was highlighted by Monica Lennon. That work will provide a lifeline for some women, but those organisations do not operate as much in rural areas, so we need to look at other ways of addressing the issue.

As other members mentioned, lack of access to such products can be a health risk due to conditions such as toxic shock syndrome. It is important that we encourage people to change products as often as possible, because otherwise they can present a real health risk.

We cannot be prescriptive about the types of product that are used, because everybody has different needs. Health conditions such as polycystic ovaries and fibroids can lead to a much greater need for various products, as they can make periods very long and heavy and often mean that women need to use a lot more products than would normally be used in a month.

The motion mentions the work that is being done in New York, and we all applaud the city’s action in supplying free sanitary products in schools, prisons and homeless shelters. As other members have mentioned, contraceptive supplies are free on the NHS from general practitioners and other health providers, which indicates that we see contraception as an essential intervention. The same is true for incontinence supplies, which are provided by community nurses free of charge to those who need them. Surely we should look at sanitary products in exactly the same way—it is about dignity and the right to hygiene and health.

Perhaps we can look at some way of getting those products out to people, either through the health service or in other ways. People may complain that it is not a health issue, and someone may not access their community nurse or GP simply because they need those products. Perhaps we could look at whether people on benefits or those who have other needs could apply once for a voucher or a card to give them supplies; they could perhaps use it in shops. People such as health visitors and family nurses have access to young families and could introduce them to that kind of scheme.

My preparation for the debate brought to mind a report that I heard about last week, which focused on women taking time off work because of menstrual problems such as pre-menstrual tension and pain. The report highlighted the fact that women were embarrassed to tell their employer the real cause of their absence, because they were pretty sure that they would not get a fair hearing—employers would say that they should be pitching up and doing their work and that it was only an excuse. It really is an equality issue for women, as they should be able to take time off if they are not well and are in pain and discomfort. We need to ensure that access to very basic products is a human right, and a right to dignity, which should be met with understanding and care. We should do something about the issue to ensure that people have access to those products.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

I thank Monica Lennon for bringing this important subject before Parliament and I pay tribute to members for their excellent speeches.

I welcome the chance to try to dispel the stigma that exists in society around periods and feminine hygiene products. For many women, feminine hygiene products such as tampons, pads and panty liners are thrown in with the weekly shop and their price is not taken into consideration. However, as women, we have no choice. Those items are as essential as the food in our trolley and, although I applaud marathon runner Kiran Gandhi for bringing the issue into focus when she “free-bled” during the London Marathon, that was to make a statement and I do not think that it would be entirely appropriate in everyday life.

I agree with Monica Lennon’s motion when it says that sanitary products should be freely available for women in shelters, schools and prisons. We should be looking at ways in which that can be done.

As Rhoda Grant said, only last week Kezia Dugdale did a great thing and collected toiletries for Edinburgh Women’s Aid after it made a plea for supplies. However, I wonder how many packs of tampons and pads would have been donated if the plea did not specify toiletries and sanitary products. Often, the term “toiletries” conjures up pictures of toothpaste, shampoo and deodorants.

Because menstruation is rarely talked about, it can easily be forgotten about and only ever mentioned in jest when a woman seems to be on edge—“Yeah, it must be that time of the month”.

There is another issue. Annie Wells mentioned it and we need to talk about it. Women’s feminine hygiene products are still taxed at 5 per cent by Westminster. The tax rate was dropped from 17.5 per cent only in 2001; it had been at the standard rate since 1973.

In

The Independent last year, Natasha Preskey said:

“There’s nothing luxurious about my periods, so why is the Government taxing tampons as if there is?”

It is essentially a tax on having a uterus. There has rightly been outrage that sanitary products have been subject to VAT, even at 5 per cent, as luxuries and so not a zero-rated essential like Jaffa cakes, flapjacks and nappies, among other things.

The SNP’s 2015 general election manifesto said that we would support the abolition of VAT on sanitary products. No other manifesto contained that commitment and we have led opposition to the tampon tax at Westminster. In his autumn statement last year, Mr Osborne announced that the £15 million that is raised each year from the tampon tax would, in future, be used to support women’s charities and services until the EU was persuaded to allow the UK to scrap the VAT on sanitary items. More than 300,000 people signed a petition to call for an end to the unfair charge.

Alison Thewliss, the MP for Glasgow Central, tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill, calling on the Westminster Government to introduce zero-rating on tampons and sanitary towels, and the SNP supported a Labour amendment that did the same. Although the amendment did not pass, changes in EU policy have been agreed and changes to the tampon tax should be reflected in the autumn statement. I welcome Annie Wells telling the chamber today that that is to be so.

The SNP has long called for the abolition of the unfair tampon tax and, after five years of inaction from the Tory Government, George Osborne set out when we can expect the VAT rules to be changed. Unlike the UK Government, whose austerity has hit women disproportionately, the Scottish Parliament is committed to the cause of gender equality.

I have said this before and I will say it again: sanitary products are not an optional luxury. They are an essential product for more than half the population. Women should not be made to pay over the odds for sanitary or feminine hygiene products that are a necessary part of life. I want us to be able to speak more freely about periods and menstruation, and not have to whisper, “It’s that time of the month” or make excuses to hide our sore tummies or make a joke about our mood swings. These things are real. It is not embarrassing, it should not be hidden; this is nature and none of us would be here without it.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

I am pleased to contribute to the debate and, at the outset, I state that I also believe that feminine health products are not a luxury; they are very much a necessity. As such, I welcome the fact that, following discussions with the European Commission earlier this year, the UK Government will be able to reduce the existing 5 per cent VAT rate on those products to zero next year.

I congratulate all those involved in pushing for the removal of the so-called tampon tax. For centuries, we have lived in what was very much a man’s world. Men wrote the medical books, became doctors, and designed medical products and they often paid only cursory interest to the result of the regular cycle of women’s bodies. Women were left to improvise and use whatever material was readily at hand to make an attempt at maintaining hygiene and dignity.

The first mention of any feminine hygiene product occurred in an account of a 4th century AD Greek woman who was said to have hurled one of her used menstrual rags at an unwanted gentleman caller. The word “rags” was literal, as from earliest times old fabrics, animal skin, and even moss were just some of the components that were used. Later, cotton pads became more common, but there was the issue of hygiene and often the inability to wash the pads caused many infections.

The later Victorian era saw the arrival of the first commercial products. Despite their increased effectiveness, few Victorian ladies were prepared to ask a shopkeeper, invariably a man, for the products, and of course cost was also a factor, even then.

It is ironic that out of the horrors of the first world war came products that would lead to major advances in the field of feminine hygiene. French nurses tending the wounded noticed the great ability of the Curad military bandages to absorb blood and started using them in place of their home-made menstrual rags.

The end of the war brought great changes for women; it brought the first rights to vote and women became more confident as the world entered the roaring twenties. Few women now felt any embarrassment at buying products that were essential to their health and wellbeing.

The interwar years brought the introduction of the product which the inventor, Dr Haas, named Tampax. Since then, that product and other tampons, towels and pads have been further developed and have become easier to use, better shaped and more absorbent. However, convenience has come at a price, not only to the environment—many of the components of the modern tampon or pad take just as long to degrade as disposable nappies—but to our purses.

I hope that this potted history of feminine hygiene products shows just how essential those products—in whatever form—have been throughout history. In the past—and sadly in many places even today—women have resorted to improvised and uncomfortable solutions, often risking their health and comfort as a result of the natural cycle of their bodies.

Victorian women were reluctant to purchase the early commercial products for fear of embarrassment. It is therefore good that the Scottish Parliament can discuss this matter openly, fully and without the slightest embarrassment. I congratulate Monica Lennon on lodging the motion.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

A week or so ago, I responded to a question from Monica Lennon on the topic for the debate by saying:

“It is an unacceptable and uncomfortable truth that for some of the most vulnerable in our society, who are those most impacted by the United Kingdom Government’s austerity programme, sanitary products can be unaffordable.”—[

Official Report

, 15 September 2016; c 5.]

I remain of that opinion and I am grateful for the chance to join Monica Lennon in her members’ business debate, as well as other members—including Gillian Martin, who has worked tirelessly on the issue—in considering what more can be done to tackle this gendered inequality. I am also grateful for the work of Engender, Barnardo’s, the Trussell Trust and Scottish Women’s Aid and their efforts to raise awareness of the issue.

The motion refers to recent legislative changes in New York city that have provided for feminine hygiene products to be supplied in schools, prisons and homeless shelters, particularly for women who may struggle to buy their own products. I know, too, that there has been discussion in Sydney in Australia about the free provision of menstrual products in public buildings such as libraries or in homeless shelters. I understand that the conversation in Sydney has been set in the context of facilities that are used most often by disadvantaged communities.

In all those examples, the unifying element is poverty. That is why the Scottish Government is doing what it can to mitigate the impact of austerity and it is why we are responding to the need to tackle poverty and inequality with action.

That was the clear message from the public during our fairer Scotland conversation, which involved more than 7,000 people across the country. As a result, ministers will publish a fairer Scotland action plan later this year. We want to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and ensure that progress on it equates to nobody in Scotland struggling to afford daily essentials, which for women include sanitary products.

Monica Lennon’s story about a woman who had not had a period for seven months because of a lack of food is one that we simply should not hear in 2016—it should be consigned to history, along with the Victorian anecdotes that we heard from Alison Harris.

As Gail Ross and others pointed out, sanitary products are not a luxury and they simply should never have been taxed. That is why the Scottish National Party highlighted and pledged action on VAT on sanitary products in our manifesto in 2015. As Gail Ross pointed out, we were the only party to do so. I am proud that the SNP has championed the case for removing the unfair and discriminatory VAT that is levied on sanitary products in the UK. I pay tribute to my friend and colleague Alison Thewliss for her work and efforts.

Women in Scotland will pay less for sanitary products once the zero rate of VAT takes effect. It is important that the UK Government delivers on its promise to introduce the necessary legislation so that the zero rate of VAT can take effect. It is also important that shops and businesses pass on the reduction in tax to the women who buy the products.

When the change arrives, it will have been a long time coming and will finally right a huge wrong. However, reducing the rate of tax is not all that needs to happen. We need to understand the level of unmet need in Scotland and to have a clearer understanding of the problem that we are trying to solve. I am grateful to all members for their contributions, in which they explored the wider issues of period pain and the consequences of toxic shock syndrome and sepsis if sanitary products are not changed often enough.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

In a Scottish Government reply of 9 August, we were told:

“Feminine hygiene is not a health issue.”—[

Written Answers

, 9 August 2016; S5W-01459.]

Has the Government had time to reflect on that and has that view changed?

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

As I said in my response to the member’s question on the issue last week, I and a host of other ministers are interested in the issue, because it transcends narrow portfolio boundaries. That is not a weakness; it is a strength, because we should look at the issue in the round, whether that involves my colleague Jeane Freeman, with the social security brief, or others who have an interest in equalities issues.

An aspect of the debate in New York, which Monica Lennon and Gillian Martin mentioned, was that young girls sometimes feel embarrassed if they have to ask someone for sanitary products during the school day. I know that most schools in Scotland provide sanitary products in some way, either through dispensers in toilets or through staff. No girl who needs access to products while in school should feel embarrassed, stigmatised or unsure of how to access them. Having a period should not be a barrier to a girl fulfilling her educational potential, as Gillian Martin said.

The New York legislation also provides for sanitary products in prisons. I understand that, in the past, some women in prison in New York had to buy products with their own money. I reassure members that prisons in Scotland are already legally required to provide sanitary products for free to women who are in custody. I mention that because we are not going from a standing start; we have made progress on some of the issues.

However, we need to be cognisant of additional areas, as Monica Lennon, Gillian Martin and Annie Wells made clear. We need a greater understanding of the lack of access to sanitary products for women who face and experience domestic abuse and for those who experience homelessness. Across the Government, we need to engage on those issues with the third sector and with those who have a deeper understanding of the problems that persist across the country.

Rhoda Grant made an excellent contribution about the costs for women in rural and remote areas. The products are more costly in smaller shops, and women also need to find the money to pay for transport to get to the shops in the first place.

I am grateful to Monica Lennon for raising the topic for discussion. I remain keen to explore what more can be done to tackle this gendered inequality, within the limitations of the current settlement. I am motivated by my role as Minister for Public Health and Sport and as a woman, united with the other female speakers this evening, to do what I can to improve the lives of girls and women in our country and ensure that, in 2016, they can live with dignity.

Meeting closed at 17:39.