Convincing Scotland’s legislators to guarantee free period products wasn’t easy.

There was pushback.

Some said they didn’t think just anyone should get access to free tampons and pads. One suggested it should be a private conversation between an individual and their doctor. Maybe that doctor could write a prescription.

It was a “chaotic” process, with opinions flying, says Monica Lennon, the Labour member of the Scottish Parliament who initially introduced a bill to tackle the issue in April 2019.

“It was a bit bumpy getting the bill through Parliament; there was resistance,” she said.

“There were legislators who felt there should be restrictions,” she said.

(That prescription idea came from a male lawmaker — “unsurprisingly,” she said.)

But ultimately, last week, the Period Products Act officially went into effect, making Scotland the first country in the world to guarantee access to free period products.

And Lennon has advice for how Canada can follow in her country’s footsteps, not only to provide products to those in need — but to open up wider conversations about reproductive health and equity.

“There’s much more than just access to the right products. It’s about menstrual health and wellbeing; it’s about no one suffering unduly from period pain … and what other polices we can have,” she said.

Scottish schools, colleges and universities as well as municipalities will be required to ensure that free products are accessible to anyone in the community, and will determine the logistics of doing that, said Lennon. An app has also been developed to show residents where they can access products.

Scotland has witnessed a massive cultural shift to implement its unprecedented law. While Canada’s government is investing in making period products more accessible, it hasn’t come close to making such significant changes.

In Scotland, it was the grassroots efforts of many advocates, pushing for the products to be free, particularly for low-income women, and the snowball effect of some employers and schools that announced publicly that they were going to offer free products, even without the legislation, that kept the discussion going. Women and girls and those who menstruate began talking openly, and directly, to the Scottish Parliament, about the challenges of managing periods in an environment where it’s heavily stigmatized.

One girl shared a story with legislators of urgently asking permission to use the bathroom, only to find that the vending machines that sell tampons and pads weren’t working, or didn’t accept certain coins, Lennon recalled. The bill’s fate had been delayed due to the pandemic, but then Scottish parliamentarians were told that the need had only become greater due to economic hardships and public spaces closing during COVID. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum got on board.

“Once we started to have the discussion in a very public way in the media, then Parliament became receptive to the conversation. … Finally, we’re talking about this,” Lennon said. “It really brought into the open there still is a lot of stigma. Many women and girls are still embarrassed.

“We know that periods are not always predictable. They can get messy … bleeding is just a bit of a nightmare.”

Creating policies around period products in the workplace helps to reduce stigma, which can in turn fuel discussions on the topic of menstrual leave or time off due to other conditions, said Lennon.

In Canada, the federal government removed taxes from period products in 2015 after thousands had signed petitions.

There have been some pilot programs to offer free tampons and pads in schools and community centres in various jurisdictions, including Hamilton, which is offering free products in public washrooms for a year. In Toronto, schools such as the University of Toronto recently provided free products at some campus locations.

The federal government’s 2022 budget has allocated $25 million over two years for Women and Gender Equality Canada to create a national pilot project and a menstrual equity fund to ensure more have access to products.

But that is still in the consultation stage. And access to free products needs to be done in tandem with combating stigma around menstruation, says Alana Livesey, senior adviser of gender equality and inclusion at Plan International Canada, a non-profit focused on advancing children and girls’ equality.

“Access to menstrual health products is a human right, not a luxury,” she said.

“People in Canada, they hide bringing their menstrual products to the washroom … or PMS is seen as an insult. And a lot of men still feel very uncomfortable talking about periods in general.”

Livesey said she hopes the menstrual equity fund will lead to programs for free products, specifically in community centres and places such as homeless shelters, and for those who have the greatest issues accessing period products.

Walmart’s online grocery store has tampons priced at between 15 to 29 cents per tampon, depending on the brand, applicator (cardboard, plastic, or no applicator) and absorbency. Pads are priced from 12 cents up to $1 each. Reusable period products, such as menstrual cups or absorbent underwear, that are considered more environmentally friendly than single-use products, can cost from $15 to $35 or more, depending on the product and the brand.

Women and Gender Equality Canada, the government department formerly known as Status of Women, told the Star in a statement that it is talking to community organizations and experts across the country “to better understand the current landscape and community needs.”

So far, it has learned that choice in products and easy access “is critical (in order) to respect cultural considerations, personal preference and to enable dignity for those looking to access products. Currently, supply of products through non-profit organizations is inconsistent and relies heavily on donations,” it said.

Scotland is available to provide guidance to Canada or any other country about how to launch a free period products program, said Lennon.

“There’s opportunities here to actually save our health systems money, and help people be in the workplace, be in school and be active in the labour market,” she said.

“There was ups and downs in (Scotland) … but it’s something that everyone can have a say in and do something. It’s really small actions that lead to the bigger change.”

Here’s what Canadians say about free period products

Plan International Canada, a charity focused on children’s and girls’ rights, conducted two surveys of 1,074 girls, women and people who menstruate in Canada and 731 men and boys in April about the affordability of menstrual products and attitudes toward menstruation.

The survey found:

  • 21 per cent of women, girls and people who menstruate said they had trouble affording period products;
  • 83 per cent said they believe products are too expensive and have trouble affording period products for themselves or their dependants;
  • 22 per cent of those who menstruate have had to ration products longer than they should due to not being able to afford to buy more;
  • 15 per cent have had to find “alternative solutions” for dealing with a period due to not being able to afford menstrual products;
  • 86 per cent of women said all period products should be free in public spaces, while 75 per cent of men said the same;
  • 51 per cent of men believed free period products should only be given to low-income or vulnerable people, while 40 per cent of women agree with that statement;
  • 85 per cent of those who menstruate said they experience painful periods;
  • 74 per cent of those who menstruate said they feel the need to hide their products when they go to the washroom and 66 per cent said they won’t let male colleagues or peers know they have their period; and
  • 79 per cent of men and boys said we should be talking about periods openly with boys and girls, but 42 per cent also said they do not need to know about periods.

Olivia Bowden is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: