Period poverty can imprison women – and humiliate women prisoners

It’s a cruel irony that prison is the only place where a legal right to sanitary protection exists.

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In the film I, Daniel Blake, Katie, a young single parent has her benefits sanctioned. She is caught stealing a box of sanitary products, after using what little money she has to feed her children. It’s a painful scene that endangers Katie and strips away her dignity. 

Can you imagine being in a situation where you would risk being arrested in order to manage your monthly period?

For a long time, few in power bothered. But now political attention in the UK has finally turned to periods, with the cost and practicalities of menstruation being debated like never before.

The “tampon tax” that treats sanitary protection as a luxury item has long since been a joke, but its acknowledgment has been a step towards lifting the silence on “period poverty” and the cruelty of life without fuss-free and affordable access to sanitary products.

In July 2016, I asked the Scottish government what it was doing to address the accessibility and affordability of sanitary products. The Scottish National Party health secretary Shona Robison acknowledged that some people struggle to afford sanitary products and although the Scottish government had no plan to address this, suggested foodbanks as a source of help. 

This shrug-of-the-shoulders response was my catalyst for action. I’m pleased to report that significant progress has been achieved since then, with the Scottish government promising to fund free access to sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities by August 2018. Grassroots activism and political pressure has prevailed and I’m optimistic that Scotland is on track to pass world-leading legislation on menstrual rights, with my member’s bill proposal gaining parliamentary support.

Legislation and funding commitments, however, can only do so much when menstruation remains a taboo subject. What about access for others, those who are often vulnerable but not always considered deserving? What about those who end up in police custody or in prison?

Read more: Life for women below the tampon line

During my member’s bill research, some people likened being stuck at home without pads and tampons to being in prison. Disturbingly, in some cases, this may be the desired effect, orchestrated by an abusive partner who is withholding access to money and freedom. Trans people and homeless people also experience difficulties in accessing sanitary protection. And it is the most vulnerable who are at higher risk of ending up in the criminal justice system.

In England and Wales, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd is facing demands for improved conditions for female suspects held in police cells, after the Independent Custody Visiting Association discovered that women are frequently left without the assistance of female officers or access to adequate and hygienic sanitary protection. These conditions are likely to breach article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It’s a cruel irony that prison is the only place where a legal right to sanitary protection exists in Scotland. Information I obtained via Freedom of Information request confirms the Scottish Prison Service spends around £9,000 annually on sanitary protection; 357 female prisoners accessed products last year.

Police Scotland confirmed it provides sanitary products to women on request in custody, subject to a dynamic risk assessment, spending around £800 a year doing so. Disposable underwear, sanitary towels and disposable bags are available. However, when I wrote to them last year, Police Scotland remained tight-lipped about the day-to-day reality for women menstruating in custody. 

We do know that Police Scotland operate a policy of non-gender specific care, whereby male staff are entitled to provide care and welfare for females in custody and vice versa. Cells are under constant camera surveillance, for understandable reasons. Issues that cause the ICVA concern.

Many of the women who come into contact with the justice system have been victims themselves, often surviving sexual assaults and gender-based violence. Is Police Scotland doing enough to safeguard the dignity and wellbeing of women in custody? A menstruating woman having to ask a male officer for disposable pants and pads is a questionable practice. 

The jury is out on current Police Scotland practices but it’s a fact that in 2016 women in Cornton Vale Prison experienced degrading conditions that kept them waiting hours for toilet access. The criminal justice system in Scotland must demonstrate that lessons have been learned.

Monica Lennon is a Labour MSP and a leading campaigner against period poverty.