A Scottish council will provide free sanitary products in all public buildings in a scheme aimed at breaking the taboo about period poverty.
North Ayrshire council believes it is the first local authority in the UK to introduce the policy, which will come into effect in up to 100 libraries, community centres and other public offices from Friday.
Joe Cullinane, the Scottish Labour leader of the council, said the move followed the success of a scheme that had been providing free sanitary products to all secondary schools in the area since last August.
“When you’ve got that kind of momentum in schools, you think that periods don’t stop at the school gates, so what about their sister or mother?” Cullinane said. “How can we normalise this even further, so that it’s like providing toilet paper or handwash?”
Cullinane estimates the initiative will cost £40,000, a large part of which will initially be spent on vending machines for women’s toilets.
Research published by the Women for Independence (WFI) group last spring revealed that nearly one in five women in Scotland had experienced period poverty – the struggle to pay for basic sanitary products on a monthly basis – which has a significant impact on hygiene, health and wellbeing.
Cullinane said: “It’s about dignity and respect, at the end of the day. It’s not just about the cost, but about normalising the whole subject, and that’s where the debate should be going nationally.”
He stressed the importance of making the scheme universal. “Any scheme that relies on women asking for help still has a barrier,” he said. “Now a woman can be going into a library for any number of reasons, and then go to the toilet and use the vending machine discreetly without there being any taboo.”
Scotland is leading the way in offering greater access to free period products. The government will provide free products in all schools, colleges and universities from this autumn, while the Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon has introduced a member’s bill at Holyrood to launch a universal scheme. Many businesses and organisations – including Celtic football club – have also started providing free products.
Lennon described the North Ayrshire scheme as “a breakthrough for gender equality”. She said: “The ambition behind my member’s bill is for Scotland to lead the world on menstrual health and this is about changing our culture as well as the law, so I’m delighted that North Ayrshire council is leading by example and helping to change attitudes towards menstruation and access to period products.”
In the WFI survey, the most common alternative to expensive sanitary products was toilet roll, with women also reporting they used rags, old clothes, T-shirts, socks and newspapers. Twenty-two per cent of respondents reported they were not able to change their products as often as they would like, with 11% of those describing a significant health impact as a result, such as a urinary tract infection or thrush. Women described their feelings of shame and isolation, worrying about smell, feeling uncomfortable, and missing out on days of education, work and social events because they felt unable to go out.