Scotland has become first country in the world to make access to free period products a legal right.

The move, enshrined in law yesterday (15 August), is a huge moment in public health history, finally offering a visible end to period poverty. That’s to be celebrated. Because the current picture, frankly, is worrying.

As many as 11% of girls aged 14 to 21 were not able to afford period products in 2020, according to a survey by children’s charity Plan International UK. It found financial constraints were forcing them to use makeshift products, such as toilet roll, socks and even newspaper.

As the cost of living crisis mounts, those figures could rise even higher.

But now, those seeking tampons and pads north of Northumberland National Park need not fear. Under the new Period Products Act, all councils, schools and other education providers across Scotland have a legal duty to provide period products free of charge to anyone who needs them.

People can find their nearest collection point through the PickUpMyPeriod app, which launched earlier this year courtesy of social enterprise Hey Girls, with support from the Scottish government.

This week’s legislation was proposed by Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has long campaigned for period products to be viewed as a basic necessity. 

Alas, an equally progressive law is still much needed elsewhere in the UK.

In England, for example, only students aged 16 to 19 are entitled to free products – under the Period Products Scheme, which was recently extended to 2024.

There’s no denying it’s helpful. Since its debut in January 2020, 94% of secondary schools and 90% post-16 education & training organisations in England now provide free period products. But the scheme simply doesn’t go far enough. It targets only a small percentage of the population, when no one should be left without help.

Matters look a little more promising elsewhere in the UK. Northern Ireland’s Period Products (Free Provision) Act (NI) 2022 Act came into effect in May, ensuring free sanitary items in all hospitals, schools and other educational premises.

In Wales, the government has invested almost £12m “to ensure free period products are available in schools, colleges and communities across the country” says a spokesman. “Period dignity is a priority and we are working to develop a draft strategic action plan to be published in early autumn.”

While the rest of the UK waits for Scotland’s example to be followed, retailers are stepping up. Boots and Superdrug both run initiatives to help combat hygiene poverty, by encouraging donations of period products alongside other basic toiletries. 

The supermarkets are also doing their bit. Take Morrisons, which continues to offer its Package for Sandy initiative across all stores’ customer service desks. It’s a free, discreet envelope of sanitary products with no questions asked.

Co-op and Waitrose, meanwhile, stock Hey Girls branded products, sales of which trigger a donation to someone who can’t afford to buy them. 

There has also been ongoing work to offer affordable own-brand options. At Asda, for example, a 20-pack of tampons comes at under 70p. And let’s not forget the supermarkets were among the first to cover the cost of VAT on period products.

As with their efforts in tackling child food poverty, this is another example of grocery stepping in while policymakers drag their feet.