MSPs unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday.
There is now a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that free items such as tampons and sanitary pads are available to “anyone who needs them”.
The bill was introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon. She has been campaigning to end period poverty since 2016.
She said it was a “practical and progressive” piece of legislation made all the more vital because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Periods don’t stop for pandemics and the work to improve access to essential tampons, pads and reusables has never been more important,” she added.
What is period poverty?
Period poverty is when those on low incomes can’t afford, or access, suitable period products.
With average periods lasting about five days, it can cost up to £8 a month for tampons and pads, and some women struggle to afford the cost.
How big a problem is it?
A survey of more than 2,000 people by Young Scot found that about one in four respondents at school, college or university in Scotland had struggled to access period products.
Meanwhile, about 10% of girls in the UK have been unable to afford period products; 15% have struggled to afford them; and 19% have changed to a less suitable product due to cost, according to research.
As well as period poverty, the bill tackles period stigma. Researchers say this is particularly an issue for young girls. It found that 71% of 14-21 year olds felt embarrassed buying period products.
The impact on education is another area the bill aims to tackle – with researchers finding almost half of girls surveyed have missed school because of their period.
What difference will the bill make?
The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill puts a legal duty on local authorities to ensure anyone who needs period products can obtain them for free.
It will be for the country’s 32 councils to decide what practical arrangements are put in place, but they must give “anyone who needs them” access to different types of period products “reasonably easily” and with “reasonable dignity”.
A consultation document proposed modelling the scheme on the system health boards already operate for distributing free condoms.
In the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, for example, anyone who wants free condoms can ask for them in locations including GP surgeries, pharmacies and colleges and universities – or alternatively they can fill out a request on a card so they do not have to ask verbally.
However, concerns were raised about a similar scheme for period products, so that provision has been removed from the bill.
The scheme will need to be operational within two years of the legislation becoming law.
The bill says ministers can in the future place a duty on other “specified public service bodies” to provide free period products.
It also enshrines in law the free provision of period products in schools, colleges and universities.
This is already happening – Scotland was the first country in the world to make period products available free in schools, colleges and universities – but the bill, if passed, will protect it.
The Scottish government earlier decided to back the bill in principle despite previously opposing it because of “significant and very real concerns” about how it would work.
The government proposed significant amendments to the bill as it proceeded through parliament, meaning it is now backed by all of the parties at Holyrood.
What has already been done to tackle period poverty?
At present tampons, pads and some reusable products are funded in schools, colleges and universities in Scotland.
The Scottish government provided £5.2m funding to support this, with £0.5m being awarded to the charity FareShare to deliver free period products to low-income households.
Another £4m was made available to councils so the roll-out could be expanded to other other public places, with a further £50,000 for free provision in sports clubs.
In some places, including a number of pubs and restaurants, products are already provided free of charge by the owners. This is a gesture of goodwill rather than a requirement.
What happens elsewhere?
The UK government has its own period poverty taskforce, with the primary aim of tackling stigma and education around periods. It also wants to improve the accessibility of period products.
Free period products were rolled out in all primary and secondary schools in England in January.
And a handful of US states have passed laws mandating free period products be provided in schools.
Since 2001, VAT has been charged on period products at a rate of 5% in the UK, with EU rules meaning this “tampon tax” could not be abolished or reduced any further.
However, over the past five years the UK government has put money raised by VAT on period products into a tampon tax fund which is used to support women’s organisations and charities.
And Tesco reduced the price of the period products it sold by 5% to cover the VAT levied on these items.
Now that the UK has left the EU, it will be up to the government to set the rate of VAT charged on period products – with ministers saying they want to completely scrap the tax on women’s sanitary products at the earliest opportunity.
A number of other countries have lowered or scrapped taxes on period products – including a dozen states in the US and countries including Kenya, Canada, Australia, India, Colombia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda, Lebanon and Trinidad and Tobago.