Every girl around the world has feared it, or worse, felt it: the snickers of peers who see bloodstains on her clothes, the sneers of classmates as she slips a pad into her pocket. But what of the girls who can’t afford sanitary products, who have to ask teachers or friends for a pad or tampon? Many girls and young women face this burden, which can isolate them and contribute to their missing or even leaving school.
Scotland’s government is leading the way to change this, announcing this week that it will provide free menstrual hygiene products at all schools and universities across the country. This is reportedly a global first. Governments including those in Kenya, some states in India, and the US state of New York have made similar commitments for primary and secondary schools.
But in truth, few governments support girls and young women in overcoming barriers to managing menstruation -- something natural and universal yet intensely stigmatized.
“Period poverty” seems to have taken on new urgency in the United Kingdom after reports surfaced about women and girls having to choose between buying food or period supplies. In February, a survey in Scotland revealed women were using toilet paper, rags, and old clothes in place of sanitary pads, which they couldn’t afford; nearly 1 in 5 respondents said they went without period products due to financial strain. A 2017 survey revealed that 1 in 7 girls in the UK had struggled to afford sanitary products, and 1 in 10 reported being unable to pay for them.
Distributing sanitary pads or tampons alone won’t eliminate the many and varied reasons girls worldwide miss or drop out of school – which include child marriage, sexual assault and harassment, pregnancy, and discrimination. But it is foolish to ignore periods and their economic, social, and physical toll on girls and young women, especially those struggling with homelessness, unemployment, or poverty.
Periods shouldn’t come with sacrifices. The ability to manage menstruation is not a luxury – it’s essential to enjoying the rights to health, water and sanitation, education, work, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government sets an excellent example here. Other governments should follow its lead and commit to respecting the rights of all girls and young women by enabling them to manage periods with dignity—including by ensuring access to period products.