It shouldn’t really need to be said, but it is an outrage that in 2017 there are women in Scotland who can’t afford sanitary products. Encouragingly, there has been growing media and political attention on this issue over the past year or so and we have heard shocking accounts of women and girls compromising their health and wellbeing because they don’t have access to these essential items.
This week, an initiative was launched by the Scottish Government which will see £42,500 invested in piloting the provision of sanitary products to low-income women through Community Food Initiatives North East, a social enterprise and charity in Aberdeen which redistributes surplus food to local partner organisations.
In truth, a variety of community organisations and others have been providing free sanitary products and other basic essentials for some time, reflecting their incredible desire to step in and help people facing urgent need. They deserve huge credit for doing so.
Yet while it is of course important to respond to immediate need it is also critical that we do not lose sight of the wider context of poverty in which this issue has emerged. To do so would be to forget that in order to end ‘period poverty’, we must focus on ending poverty.
If a woman can’t afford to buy sanitary products then it is likely that she also doesn’t have money for other essentials. As we have seen from the rise in food banks, low income – driven by insecure, low-paid work and an inadequate benefits system – means people are increasingly struggling to meet their basic needs. Without efforts to address these structural issues, short-term, targeted initiatives will only ever serve as sticking plasters which deal with the symptoms, not the causes of people’s poverty.
In the context of the rise of food banks there has been a danger that by focusing on ‘food crisis’ and ‘feeding responses’ we have become distracted from looking at the systemic changes that are needed to increase incomes and ensure dignified, non-stigmatising solutions. That’s why our project – A Menu for Change – aims to reduce the need for food banks by focusing on prevention and increasing people’s access to their cash entitlements.
There is a similar risk that we become distracted when trying to grapple with the scandal of ‘period poverty’.
We recognise that food is a basic human right and that everyone should have enough money to be able to feed themselves and their families. Women’s health is also a basic human right and so action is needed to address the structural barriers to achieving that right for all, which includes access to sanitary products. However, it is vital that ‘period poverty’, like ‘food poverty’, is not looked at in isolation but is recognised as a potent indicator of material deprivation. To tackle both, we need to retain a sharp focus on the underlying cause: poverty.
Author: Mary Anne MacLeod, Research and Policy Officer