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Just how effective is Scotland’s free period products policy?

Publication: Greater Govanhill

An illustration about period poverty showing three ladies;two having access to period products and one not
Illustrations by Issey Medd | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved.

Free period products have been part of Scotland’s legislation since 2021 through The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act. Since then, the country has been recognised as a world pioneer in tackling period poverty. Greater Govanhill reporters spoke with community members and organisations to understand more about how this legislation works in practice.

Sitting down to lunch one day with the Feel Good Women’s group who meet at the Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre, we talked about the Scottish Government’s free period products policy.

Most had never heard of it, and those who had, didn’t know how to access products. Together we downloaded the government’s Pick Up My Period app and were surprised to see that the centre we were sitting in was listed as a stockist of free products. On enquiring, reception staff presented a brown paper bag containing a handful of products. But there was nothing advertising this service.

This got us thinking. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act of 2021 was declared ‘world leading’ at the time. But just how effective has it been in getting the products into the hands of people who might need them most? We set off around the neighbourhood to find out.

What does the act cover, and how does it work?

The act places responsibility on city councils and places of education to provide free and easy access to period products for anyone in Scotland who needs them. The legislation asserts that period dignity is a right, not a privilege and that no person who menstruates should be without reasonable access to necessary period products. The legislation also says that, within reason, people who menstruate should not have to ask or explain themselves when in need of period pads or tampons.

Since the act’s introduction, Glasgow City Council (GCC) has officially committed to providing period products ‘in all Local Authority run education establishments, community venues and in publicly accessible workspaces’. They are not obliged to provide to the third sector, meaning non-profit organisations are not required by law to stock free period products.

Before becoming an official piece of legislation, however, social enterprises and campaign groups like Hey Girls had been campaigning for years to end period poverty. In 2019, just a year after the company launched, Hey Girls began working with the Scottish Government to place free period products in schools, colleges and universities.

In Glasgow, Simon Community, a homeless charity,  are responsible for delivering period products to venues that are expected to stock them, and for this, they receive funding. Before entering into this contract, Simon Community were already delivering period products to community spaces in the third sector. Today, Simon Community is still delivering to venues in the third sector to continue serving those most likely to experience period poverty.

“Men shy away from the topic so much that they often develop misconceptions on what a period really entails, which perpetuates a harmful narrative”.

What impact does period stigma have?

The introduction of free period products is one step toward creating dignified experiences for people who have periods. But a secondary issue involves addressing the associated stigma. We spoke to the women at the Feel Good Women’s group about this. One said: “Men shy away from the topic so much that they often develop misconceptions on what a period really entails, which perpetuates a harmful narrative”.

Different cultures have different beliefs and traditions. Another woman told us: “It’s almost taboo in the Roma community. It’s kind of shameful to talk about it.” Others told us that in their community, women who are menstruating should not knead bread or touch a bible as they are considered impure. It’s also mentioned in other religions; many mosques state that menstruating women should not enter.

This stigma can lead to increased issues, as one woman explained: “Many Roma women are suffering because their periods are so heavy, they’re struggling with health issues because of it. They’re not telling anybody unless they get really bad, and the next thing they’re in the hospital… They even feel ashamed to tell a doctor about it.”

There have been attempts to reduce stigma among young people. In 2017, GCC and Hey Girls launched a pilot in four secondary schools in Glasgow. The work was intended to create positive and accurate conversations around periods and ensure all pupils could access free products. A consultation launched in 2022 by GCC found that 76 per cent of secondary students knew that their school had free products available, and 87 per cent of those that took part in the research said they had used the service. Since then, the scheme has been extended to all 30 secondary schools in the city.

Here in Govanhill, Holyrood Secondary School has created a Period Dignity Group in which young people lead an initiative that challenges how people think about periods and reduces stigma by initiating conversations. A designated room has also been created for pupils to access products in a dignified manner. All Glasgow P7 and S1 students will receive a gift bag on their return to school in August, which will include two reusable pads. 

An illustration with a map of places with free period products
Illustrations by Issey Medd | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved.
How easy are free period products to access?

In 2022, the Scottish Government funded ‘My Period’, the education arm of Hey Girls, to release an app that shows where to find free period products. People can also find the information online using the website. Users can even filter what kind of products they prefer. However, it requires local authorities to input data, and when we checked, it still listed the Govanhill Library as closed despite reopening in 2022. This brings into question the accuracy of the information on the app.

According to a spokesperson from GCC, the app was initially promoted in public spaces during Glasgow’s first Period Dignity Month in February 2022: “This included being advertised on 100 buses, 90 bus shelters, all 15 subway stations and 40 subway carriages, and a social media campaign ran for four weeks where the app was advertised on Facebook and Instagram”.

Yet when we visited the seven venues listed closest to Govanhill, it was apparent most people working at these venues were unaware that the app existed. This meant that they were unable to inform users about the app, which allows them to access key information.

Does it work for everyone?

Many individuals still face exclusion due to a lack of internet connection or smartphone access or struggle with digital literacy. Digital exclusion is a real issue for many of those who are already experiencing the biggest inequalities. Increased advertising in community spaces could help but also display information posters in windows and notice boards instead of only in the toilet, as most venues currently do.

Glasgow Life has been working with Simon Community since 2019, well before the law came into place, to ensure people have access to period products. However, the libraries we visited only had posters about the service in bathrooms. We asked Glasgow Life about the limited information on display, and a spokesperson said: “Generally, the posters/leaflets we display are for people who are not online; we also have to consider the target audience for specific venues. Glasgow Life Libraries do have stickers on their doors to highlight they are welcome places for breastfeeding, and they are exploring a similar idea for period products.”

One of the Feel Good Women’s group attendees told us: “It was very handy, but I wouldn’t have known I could go there if I wasn’t told by [Project Co-ordinator] Rizwana that they have these items here.” 

An additional barrier is that the app is only available in English. Govanhill is home to people from all over the world, with Urdu, Punjabi, Polish and Romani being some of the most popular languages among residents. One local from the Roma community explained: “So many Roma people don’t speak English, some don’t have access to the internet, or even have a device that they can have an app on. So I’m not really sure how easy it is for people to access these products through the app.” 

An Equality Impact Assessment found that: ‘Consideration should be given to producing materials in languages spoken by minority ethnic communities in Scotland’. This is yet to be done.

During a consultation by GCC into period dignity, they also heard that more consideration could be given to trans and non-binary people by removing the need to ask for products behind a desk and placing them in more male bathrooms. The report shows that eleven per cent of participants said they were too embarrassed to use the service, indicating more work is needed to destigmatise periods. Some period points are already doing this, like the Burrell Collection, which keeps products in male bathrooms.

How easy was it to find products around Govanhill?

From the venues we visited scattered through Govanhill, it was clear that most users were not taking products for the entire length of their cycle. Indeed when filtering on the app, none of the Govanhill stockists listed ‘bulk supply’ as an option; there is only the possibility of taking a few products.

Andrea Middleton, the Period Friendly Project Coordinator at Simon Community, told us how the system works: “We contact the venues and ask how many products they need, we place the order, and GCC buys them from Hey Girls… There are some venues we are contractually obligated to deliver to, but we also wanted to continue delivering to third-sector organisations, like we did when we started the project.”

One of the biggest difficulties is the lack of people able to deliver products on a regular basis. Andrea said, “In terms of growing the project, we wholly rely on volunteers. We need volunteers to keep the project going.” It’s a rewarding job, according to one volunteer: “I’ve had some of my happiest moments this year cycling around Glasgow in the blazing sunshine (ok, sometimes pouring rain!), with a massive backpack that looks really heavy but is as light as a feather, stuffed full of tampons and pads.” But a shortage of volunteers limits the ability to keep the pickup points stocked.

“I remember they had these brown bags filled with items; I picked one up, but once I had removed all the tampons, there was around one pad, and that wasn’t very helpful for me because I don’t use tampons.”

What more could be done?

Our project partners, The Ferret, found that  GCC is paid £620,000 a year to provide menstrual products in schools and the community but spent only £110,000 in the period from September 2021 to December 2022. The council stated this underspend was due to venues being closed because of the pandemic.

In an interview with The Ferret, Dr Jennifer Martin, a global menstrual health campaigner and founder of the Pandemic Periods project, said: “This can be an effective policy, but it shouldn’t just be up to local authorities, who are very under-resourced and facing lots of different challenges, to deliver it. This needs to involve public health because menstrual health is a public health and human rights issue.”

During the pandemic, Simon Community introduced small brown bags that contained products to avoid others touching items. This was created as a safety precaution, but many women told us they were more comfortable reaching for these bags. However, Andrea from Simon Community explained that these bags were only a temporary safety solution: “It’s labour-intensive to make these packs, and it depends on whether volunteers can deliver more products and if the venue can be stocked.”

Other locals have also said that the pickup points don’t feel comfortable locations to access products. A Govanhill resident said: “I couldn’t imagine going to the library to get pads; I’d think to go to the pharmacy or the local community centre. The community centre in Toryglen has made it easy to take what you need, and as much as you like, they have a unit with large quantities of products available.”

It is apparent that people who want to use the service don’t want to feel like there is an unequal exchange or access the products in spaces that feel uncomfortable for personal items. This is why The People’s Pantry, a project run by the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, is such a popular period point. It is a membership-led shop that provides quality food at a reduced rate. Since April, they have been stocking period products.

This creates a more dignified environment for people to access products, explains Meli Vasiloudes Bayada, an administrator for Govanhill Baths: “We felt that the most vulnerable people were being left out of the conversation because they don’t have access to the app. So after we spoke with the committee, they expanded the service to the Pantry. If you’re going to do your shop but also getting pads then that doesn’t feel like such a big thing. Not as much as going out your way to the library or a space that you wouldn’t otherwise use.”

However, it is taking time for a regular and continuous delivery of products. We were told that pads were selling faster than tampons and there were prolonged periods before new stock was being received.  

Due to stigma, people from some cultures can feel apprehensive about using tampons. As one woman shared: “I remember they had these brown bags filled with items; I picked one up, but once I had removed all the tampons, there was around one pad, and that wasn’t very helpful for me because I don’t use tampons.”

Research carried out by GCC themselves shows that pads are the most popular period product that has been accessed at period point venues, with 83 per cent of people using them.

However, some people have concerns about these products. GCC told us that currently, six venues stock reusable products such as cups and pants, but that will increase to 21 venues by the end of August. There is a need for more work to be done to meet the needs of the specific groups utilising the service to improve the uptake among those most in need of the free period products.

Still, this new policy only came into law in 2021. In theory, people can now take free period products to cover the entire length of their period. However, clearly, some limitations to delivering and accessing the service still need to be addressed.

To help the service reach its full potential, you can support the work of Simon Community in delivering period products to communities across Glasgow. You can contact Andrea at: