This month Scotland announced that it would provide free sanitary products to all students at Scottish universities, an initiative it claims is a world first. With news like this, we see the fight against the tampon tax – the name given to the VAT which must currently be paid on all period products, as they are not currently classed as essential items by Westminster – now causing real change at a governmental level. Yet the fight to banish the tampon tax, and to make sanitary items accessible more generally, has long been growing in universities. Up and down the country students have been at the heart of the fight against the tampon tax.
The price of a box of pads or tampons might seem negligible by itself. But over a lifetime menstrual products cost £18,000, or around £13 a month, which can be an impossible expense for those struggling to survive financially – including many cash-strapped students. 40% of girls have used toilet roll instead of purchasing costly supplies. Commenting on Scotland’s free periods initiative, Shuwanna Aaron, NUS Scotland’s women’s officer, has said that ‘by helping to remove a financial barrier that previously was overlooked by many, this funding will hugely benefit students across Scotland’. Crucially, Aaron highlights how unacknowledged the need free period policies address is.
Students have been quicker than politicians to recognise this need though. Free periods campaigns can already be found at a plethora of universities, many of which have been in place for years. Sussex, UEA, Middlesex, Birmingham and Sunderland are just a few of the universities which run programmes providing free sanitary products to their students, usually through their students’ unions. Some students’ unions have also been selling sanitary products without a profit margin in their retail outlets, to compensate for the tax applied to them. These pre-existing university schemes sometimes offer menstrual cups or organic pads and tampons too, often in co-operation with sanitary product makers Natracare, linking up the environmental impact of menstruation with its personal financial implications. Will the Scottish government also take this opportunity to provide sustainable sanitary products, or simply settle for the plastic-packed options instead?
But student action around menstruation has gone beyond making menstrual products accessible for just themselves. Many students have also been trying to make sanitary products affordable to those outside the university. Sussex students now have the option to donate some or all of their free sanitary products to disadvantaged people outside the university, whilst Manchester organisation Every Month was set up by local students and provides period packs to food banks across the local area. Universities from Sheffield to Warwick have also celebrated Period Pride events too, helping to break the stigma that makes period poverty such a difficult political issue to address.
Student politics might have its critics, but when it comes to tackling the tampon tax students have been forcing through policies far before the political elite. If the tampon tax is finally repealed, students will have been instrumental to kickstarting the change.