Woman on a mission to make period products free in Scotland
Meet MSP Monica Lennon, the powerhouse woman who successfully campaigned to end period poverty in Scotland
Shortly after becoming Scottish Labour MSP for Central Scotland at the age of 35 , Monica Lennon set about working on plans to rid Scotland of period poverty.
In November 2020, after four years of campaigning, The Period Products (Free Provision Scotland) Act was approved by the Scottish Parliament. This extraordinary moment, spearheaded by an extraordinary woman, saw Scotland become the first country in the world to offer free universal access to period products.
It takes a period game changer to know one, so we got in touch with the powerhouse that is Monica Lennon, to ask her all our burning questions: on the grassroots beginnings of the free period movement, how the bill may impact period poverty, any advice for anyone looking to spark this movement elsewhere, and much, much more…
Mooncup: The Free Period products Act, passed late last year meant that Scotland will become the first country in the world to offer free and universal period products for all. You led a four-year campaign to make this happen. Can you tell us a bit about the background behind the free period movement, how it all began?
Monica: I had the privilege of being elected to the Scottish parliament for the first time in 2016. As a feminist, and an intersectional feminist, it was a responsibility that I took very seriously.
My mission was to hit the ground running. I wanted to campaign for women’s equality, and to really shine a light on inequality. An obvious place to start, for me, was to ask the Scottish Government some questions around menstruation: around accessibility and affordability of period products, as well as stigma and the taboo that still surrounds periods. So that really sparked a conversation in the Scottish Parliament and opened up a wider dialogue.
It transpired that the Scottish Government was not doing any research on this whatsoever. They didn’t really know about the accessibility and affordability of period products. However, there was an acknowledgment that some people struggle to afford them. At that time, in 2016, the Scottish Government was signposting people in financial difficulty to food banks. To me that just didn’t seem like an acceptable solution. There’s a role for food banks, and there’s a role for crisis support, but in a wealthy country, we can do so much better than that!
The next step was to take that information outside of the Parliament and ask different groups what their experience of menstruation and period poverty was. That’s when the term “period poverty” started to be used. It’s not exactly a nice term to use, but it captured the reality people were experiencing.
Something that came across very strongly was that young people were finding it extremely difficult to get information – not every family or household speaks openly about periods. Some young people were also struggling to access products, and teachers were filling a gap by providing period products, sometimes out of their own pockets. That clearly wasn’t a satisfactory situation.
What was happening was that people were choosing not to go out. People were staying at home, which meant missing out on education, missing out on sport and leisure, missing out on activities in the workplace. And that was just exacerbating inequality and exclusion.
So, really, my work consisted of capturing all that experience, bringing together energy from the grassroots, and raising the issue in the Parliament at every opportunity. And the movement built from there.
The solution was always clear to me: legislation is not the only thing we can do, but if we could change the law then everything else could fall into place. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve managed to do.
Woman on a mission
What were your motivations for starting the campaign in Scotland?
Monica: At its most basic level, it was about fighting for gender equality. To show that politics can be very practical and transformative and can actually make a difference, because I think at times, people lose hope.
We’ve had a long period of austerity in the UK. We’ve come through recessions. The impact on women and girls has been disproportionate in terms of the economic impacts. I was determined to use my voice in the Scottish Parliament to show that things can be different, and that grassroots movements do have power, and can make a difference. It was a very good way to bring grassroots movements together. To work with local partners, local councils, with colleges, universities, trade unions, and so many others, and then to bring the ideas and solutions to government. When the government wasn’t initially convinced, I went to work with those partners. I was able to give examples of a college, or a university, or a workplace who are already providing free period products. They were doing it for very little investment but getting great results. Those outcomes were visible early on.
It was empowering to work with those early adopters, who just truly believed that was the right thing to do and went ahead and did it. They didn’t wait for government, didn’t wait for big funds to be released. But if we continued like that with these pilot schemes that the government would eventually fund, it would have been very patchy, and we would have had a postcode lottery. I believed it was entirely possible to make this happen across Scotland! And if we did it, that would just inspire so many other campaigners and legislators around the world to demand the same. Hopefully, that’s what we’re starting to see now.
Throughout your four-year campaign, what kind of resistance, if any, did you experience?
Monica: I don’t want to imply that this was at all an easy campaign, because there was a lot of hard work. But overall, people were very supportive. When I did the public consultation early on, the support for the bill was overwhelming. What was incredibly powerful was hearing from people. Particularly from older women who’ve gone through menopause and were looking back at their experience of menstruation. Their positive response was overwhelming. They were saying “I wish this had had happened years ago, I could really have benefited from this.”
The opposition was in the margins – it mostly came from men who would say “whatabout us? We don’t get free razors.” Well, women don’t get free razors. This is not about body hair; this is about menstruation. It’s about women and people who menstruate, bleeding through their clothes and not being able to participate fully because of financial poverty. But also because of health conditions like endometriosis, which can be very difficult to manage.
We looked at the experience of refugees and asylum seekers. And we also looked at the experience of women, girls and people who menstruate who have experienced domestic violence and abusive relationships. So many difficult issues that people can’t just turn up at a foodbank and talk about. We realised there were so many different barriers.
So, every time we encountered someone saying “this is ridiculous, what next? Free mobile phones for everyone?”, we were able to affect culture change and have positive conversations about menstruation. In fact, some people who were more sceptical to begin with started to say things such as “my daughter has this experience”. They would talk about someone in the family having really heavy, difficult periods, and about the menopause when bleeding can become irregular or can be heavier. People would say things like “well, women should be prepared, they must surely know when their periods are going to happen!” It’s not as simple as that.
It really opened conversations. People told us they were having to hide a tampon up their sleeve to go to the loo in the workplace. What we’ve been able to do, including me, as a member of parliament for my staff and constituents coming into my office, is to get a basket, put some free products in there, and have a note to say “please take what you need”.
It was so simple, but people feel it’s a radical idea. There’s been a little bit of resistance, but to be able to get a bill like this through the Scottish Parliament from the opposition benches, and to overcome party political differences as well, it’s an achievement that I’m very proud of. And I know that many, many people can be proud of it, because they were all part of that change.
Campaigning for period dignity and choice
It is such a landmark bill for many reasons that are quite symbolic. The estimated cost of the scheme is something like 9 million pounds a year. That’s a drop in the ocean. But it’s so important, like you said, to talk about periods. It is relevant to half of the population.
Monica: Absolutely. For any piece of legislation or any policy, we have to scrutinise the financial implications very carefully. But what came across strongly from the beginning of the campaign is that the uptake would be low to moderate. Thankfully, most people can afford to buy their period products at a time and place of their choosing, and they have their preferred products. But as you know, for a minority, yet a significant number of people who do struggle on a regular basis, this was clearly going to be really important. And we know that young people in particular are in quite precarious work – there are lots of zero-hour contracts and, and their income can fluctuate. It’s about knowing there is that safety net there.
What came across very strongly from the very beginning of the campaign and the consultation was a desire to be able to try different products and to take a more sustainable approach. There was a perception that the cost could be a barrier to people trying products like the Mooncup® and other reusable products.
What was really encouraging, in 2019, Zero Waste Scotland did a survey in Scotland. The results showed that around one in 10 people were using reusable products, but many more wanted to try them. So, through the bill we were able to pilot different initiatives across Scotland where people could try reusable products for the first time. That has also helped to raise awareness and improve the uptake of those products.
From a feminist perspective, this campaign has always been about dignity. It’s always been about choice, and about empowering women, girls, and people who menstruate to make their own choices and to remove any barriers in terms of accessibility and affordability. It’s been really encouraging to hear from a whole cross section of society that people do want to see reusable products like menstrual cups to be more readily available.
As well as just campaigning for the products to be more available, I’ve a wider interest in promoting women’s health and looking at things in a more holistic way. Part of that is about menstrual health and wellbeing education becoming embedded in the curriculum in our schools. There has been progress in England and Scotland on this. It is key that young people going through puberty and starting to menstruate know what choices are available to them.
How do eco-friendly products fit in Free Period movement?
In England, for the first time, reusable period products like the Mooncup menstrual cup are included in the free period product selection for state schools and colleges. What role do you think reusables will have in Scotland for people who wish to use them?
Monica: I think it’s a situation that’s just going to continue to improve. We’ve seen that already. And to their credit, the Scottish Government ran a pilot scheme in Aberdeen a few years ago, before the bill was passed. They used that pilot to encourage people to try reusable period products and there was some good data captured from that.
There has been good partnership work around this, and I know that local governments have already embraced it. I think people come back to that financial aspect – in terms of getting good value for the public purse.
People can absolutely see the merit of making something like the Mooncup menstrual cup available to someone who’s menstruating. Because if they access that through one of the government initiatives and get on well with it, they won’t have to come back to the government scheme for a number of years. They’ll have a product that they can use time and time again. We are finding that when people try a menstrual cup, they don’t tend to turn back. But of course, it’s about recognising that people need options.
Early on in the campaign, some people were saying “if you’re trying to help people who are homeless, or are the most financially distressed, just give them something like a menstrual cup”. It’s great to hear Mooncup recognising that it isn’t always going to be what someone needs right there and then. It could be part of the solution, but we want to make sure that people have a fast and dignified solution that is right for them. So, to me, it has always been about a wider framework of respecting choice and dignity and being inclusive.
You do need access to clean water and to be able to clean your Mooncup. Trying something new might also be the last thing on your mind in a crisis situation.
Monica: One of the charities in Scotland, Simon Community, who support people who are homeless or in temporary accommodation, launched a scheme called Period Friendly Points. They have lovely colourful branding, so if you can see their sticker in a cafe or community building, you would know you can go there and safely access toilets, water, and a range of period products and other hygiene products. This was about looking beyond the period products someone might need, and making sure people are comfortable and safe. It’s about services all working together. Because of this legislation in Scotland, we have an opportunity to reach further into communities and to make sure that anyone who wants to try reusable products can do that.
Right now, there is obviously research focused on the climate emergency, and COP26 is being hosted by the UK, here in Glasgow. So, this is another big opportunity to be talking about sustainability around menstruation and to make sure that reusables are accessible.
What impact does this free period movement will have on period poverty?
Monica: This is potentially a game changer. The bill was approved in November 2020. It received Royal Assent from the Queen in January this year. To be able to achieve all of that, during a pandemic, I think is pretty significant. Although there have already been a lot of schemes, the legislation will hopefully be completely rolled out this year.
If we do this properly, and if we make the information available to people that they have a right to access these products, then we should be able to alleviate and eradicate period poverty in Scotland. Everyone in Scotland will be able to menstruate with dignity, provided that they know about these schemes, and they know how to access them.
Monica Lennon’s top tips to period poverty campaigners
What’s your advice for anyone who is interested in sparking this movement elsewhere?
Monica: I’d love to give you a glimpse of my inbox! It’s so nice. I get emails every single day, from people right across the UK and indeed, from all parts of the world. And I’ve had some great discussions. I’ve been able to speak to members of parliament from many, many other countries, who are now wanting to do the same. They ask “tell me what you did, and where did you find difficulties?” and “What would you do differently?” People want to learn from what we’ve done in Scotland. And that’s a fantastic position to be in.
To go back to what I said at the beginning about in 2016, being a brand-new MSP wanting to show that politics does matter, that politics can make a difference, and that people can directly influence people in power. That’s something that we’ve absolutely been able to demonstrate.
It doesn’t mean that the approach we’ve taken in Scotland will be right for everywhere else. But if the vision is to allow everyone who menstruates to do so with dignity, and for their period never to hold them back, then we’ve got a template for that in Scotland. I just can’t wait to see how it develops elsewhere. It’s very exciting and it does feel like it’s a growing global movement!
What are your top tips for people asking for advice?
Monica: I tell people to absolutely follow their vision, to be passionate and to be organised!
– You can’t do it on your own. One member of parliament or any one organisation can’t do it. You must collaborate, you have to work with others, you have to create space for the voices that are not being heard as clearly.
– Be really organised and be bold! Get in front of people. Lobby your government, lobby your members of parliament, your local councillors. Raise it where you are, raise it in your workplace, raise it in your school, join a trade union and raise it as a workplace issue. What we’ve seen in Scotland is young female football fans taking it to the boardroom of their football clubs and getting period products in the stadium.
– We don’t have to think about this in very traditional ways. Just take it everywhere and share what you’re doing. Use social media. Women often don’t have the same representation as men do in the media or in politics, so use social media to amplify your voice and other women’s voices.
– Be inclusive, be intersectional. This is for everyone who menstruates, regardless of their gender identity.
You’ll find that if you stick to this, and you’re really determined, you will get results. And it’s very satisfying.
The Mooncup is available for free in schools in England
The Mooncup menstrual cup is now available for free in state schools & colleges across England. Get in touch with your teacher or school nurse to ask for your free Mooncup® and remember to tell your friends!
If your school hasn’t opted into the scheme, we have created a lobbying kit with letter templates to download, as well as assets to share to spread the word and get more schools onboard.
The Mooncup is reusable, you only need the one- for light and heavy days, and it will last for years and years. Calculate how much money you could save by making the switch: check out the Mooncup® Savings Calculator
Read more on the Mooncup® blog:
Did someone say Free Period?
Young Person’s Guide to Period Products
Period Poverty in the UK: can the Mooncup help?
No Shame. Period.
Period stigma is still deep-rooted in workplaces
Top menstrual cup tips for a first-time Mooncup® user
The pandemic is no excuse to give up our fight against single-use plastic
Changing your delivery country will reset your basket