Scotland made history last month when its parliament passed a law that gives women a legal right to adequate sanitation supplies. Because women have the human right to stay clean and to feel their inherent dignity, public institutions will provide necessary supplies to women who request them.
Scotland’s innovation is excellent and will hopefully motivate other countries to follow suit. But we should not overlook the potential of private sector companies to solve the problem of menstrual equity.
The United States is almost as bad as a third world country when it comes to the “period of poverty” – the collective term used to describe the inability to afford or obtain sanitary supplies. It’s an appealing term for building a movement and capitalizing on people’s outrage, but it gives the impression that the issue of free supplies will only benefit women who live and live in poverty themselves.
But it is not always the time of poverty. A lot of it is about not having what you need when you need it.
86% of women’s periods start in public, when they don’t have a tampon or pad, according to the Free the Tampons movement. Almost all – 79% – make a makeshift tampon or maxi towel out of toilet paper. Instead of – or maybe in addition – that, 62% left where they were going to go to a store and buy one and 34% returned home to buy one.
No one has quantified the loss of productivity resulting from this, but it is important and lasting. It happens to many women once a month. Given that 71% of non-agricultural employees work for private companies, unlimited stamps in public places may not always help.
It is not limited to adults. During the good times, one in five American girls misses school due to menstrual complications, like not being sure not to stain their clothes. School closures during the pandemic have reduced access to needed supplies.
Of course, period poverty also encompasses those who cannot afford these products, a large population itself. In a 2019 study of low-income women, almost two-thirds of respondents said not being able to afford the products they needed over the past year. Additionally, the researchers admitted that they only studied women who are already receiving services, so this is likely an underestimation of need.
Companies provide soap, paper towels, water and toilet paper to customers and employees who use their toilets at no cost and without hesitation. However, the same is not true for tampons and sanitary napkins, even though they are just as necessary for cleanliness.
Any cost could easily slip into existing budgets for bathroom supplies, and a free handout wouldn’t break the bank. It costs between $ 5 and $ 7 per person for a company to provide tampons. There is a one-time cost for boxes or other dispensing devices, but even these are not necessary. A cardboard box of supplies would suffice in many places.
Not only is the cost of supplies far from prohibitive, but, when you consider in light of the productivity protections they offer, the free supplies actually benefit the bottom line. In 2015, the University of Iowa decided to distribute free supplies – rather than billing for them through vending machines in bathrooms – when the school realized he would spend $ 29,000 less each year in administrative costs.
Private companies may need to lead by example on this issue. In the United States, we see this as a public function, but many of the government’s efforts to reduce recurring poverty have not been as effective as hoped.
For example, some blame menstrual inequity stamp tax—The fact that state and local governments consider tampons and pads to be luxury items and therefore taxable. But it’s a red herring. Eliminating the tax would be wise and fair, but it would not make the products affordable enough to solve the problem of period poverty.
Twelve states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have agreed to provide incarcerated women enough tampons and pads for free; a bill is pending in two other states. The federal rule came from the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act – a bill that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris co-sponsored in the Senate. This bill was not passed on its own, but the provisions for free supplies for women in federal prisons were incorporated into the First Step Act, which became law in 2018. The problem is that guards and other guards thwart these policies with their insistence on maintaining power imbalances that creates a lack of pads or tampons.
Even if the United States were to pass a law like Scotland’s – which is doubtful, given that New York Representative Grace Meng has put forward proposals for real change, including the Menstrual Fairness for All Act, but his bills did not leave committee for consideration by the full Congress – Scotland’s solution has its wrinkles, such as lack of clarity on where these products will be available for free. The law specifies “schools, colleges, universities and all other public buildingsBut it’s not clear if someone could quit their job, walk into a government building and ask for Tampax.
This does not mean that nothing can be done; Congress has taken a step toward rectifying the vagaries around menstruation supplies this year. The CARES law classifies menstrual products as medical expenses, allowing consumers to use health savings accounts to pay them. It is an advancement in that it identifies tampons and pads as medical necessities. But this provision does not solve the problem of the sudden lack of access to supplies, which is at the heart of the poverty of the era.
Ultimately, the politics of the day is about power. Scotland’s new law might work because it empowers menstruating women.
But the responsibility of getting pads and tampons into the hands of women and girls will often fall into the hands of private companies. It is not a duty to be avoided. Providing free tampons and pads will benefit them – and everyone.
Chandra Bozelko is a union columnist, moderator of the OpEd project and contributor to the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstrual Studies.