Dani Garavelli: Period Poverty - how could such radical policy making be allowed to turn so sour?

The appointment of a man as Scotland’s first "period dignity officer" overshadowed a genuinely radical piece of grassroots, by-women, for women policy-making.

It was Women for Independence who first campaigned on period poverty. Back in 2015, the organisation carried out a survey that found some girls were skipping school because they could not afford sanitary pads or tampons. Others were using ad hoc substitutes such as paper towels, at a cost to both their dignity and health.

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On election to Holyrood, Labour’s Monica Lennon and the SNP’s Gillian Martin took up the cause. After a brief scuffle over who deserved most credit, MSPs of all parties rallied behind Lennon’s Bill, which was passed unanimously in 2020.

Campaigners and activists rally outside the Scottish Parliament in support of the Scottish Government's Support For Period Products Bill on February 25, 2020. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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As a result, Scotland last week made public health history becoming the first country in the world to provide menstrual products free to anyone who needs them.

Finally, something positive: legislation which showcases how Holyrood can use its powers creatively; how politicians can put party differences aside; how - even in a world riddled with misogyny - women can band together as a force for good.

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This wasn’t virtue-signalling: it was delivering real help on the ground. It was braver and less gimmicky than baby boxes: new-borns have universal electoral appeal and provide good photo opportunities; monthly bleeding not so much. And with inflation rates and energy prices spiralling, it was perfectly timed.

Yet, within days, the celebrations had been soured: by the culture war, by male entitlement, and by the biggest PR fail since Donald Trump inadvertently held a press conference in the parking lot of a landscaping business.

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Jason Grant

At a moment when the focus should have been on female empowerment, there was Jason Grant, Tayside’s newly-appointed “period dignity officer”, hogging the headlines from Broughty Ferry to Boston. Instead of figureheads applauding the country’s enlightened stance, we had Martina Navratilova and Judy Murray expressing their outrage in most unladylike terms.

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If Grant had some background in women's reproductive health, the response might have been more muted. I myself am not men-ist. Some of my best gynaecologists have been male. But Grant’s background is in tobacco sales and personal training. Even if you factor in his two years as a “well-being officer” it’s hardly a career that screams, “pick me to promote sanitary products”.

Besides, his tone was so glib. When he said: “Having a guy can’t be a bad thing – it grabs the headlines” - wasn’t that the definition of trolling? And, oh: that photograph of him mansplaining menstruation to a mother and daughter; so crass and ill-advised. Did no-one involved appreciate the optics? And if not, then how can we trust them to deliver their service with sensitivity?

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Jason Grant

Few would downplay the importance of teaching men more about menstruation. But only in a society that regards the male as the default figure of authority, would anyone argue those lessons should be led by those with the least expertise. If they want to know what it’s like to suffer cramps or fear you might bleed through your clothes, they ought to listen to those with “lived experience”. Or is menstruation the only aspect of health and social care where “lived experience” is deemed irrelevant.

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This is only partly Grant’s fault, and I share others’ discomfort with the level of vitriol he has been subjected to. I don’t think, if I were him, I would have sought a role that was so clearly destined to antagonise. But the job advert was gender-neutral, he was entitled to throw his hat in the ring, and the responsibility for his appointment lies primarily with the four women who chose him over other candidates.

But the vigour with which that decision has been defended suggests the monthly cycle is not the only aspect of female experience on which those involved are ill-informed. When Dundee City Council leader John Alexander said, “There are no male and female jobs here”, he presented himself as a champion of equality. But he ignored the historical context. For decades, local authorities did have male and female jobs. The male jobs were better paid than the female ones; and many women are still waiting to be compensated for that discrimination. Those injustices linger on.

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In any case, as the old people-of-different-heights-trying-to-see-over-a-tall-fence image seeks to demonstrate, equality is one thing and equity another. Equity isn’t achieved by treating everyone the same; it is achieved when we acknowledge the challenges particular sections of the population face and work to overcome them. Menstruation and the menopause have a negative impact on many women’s professional lives. Yet, until recently, mentioning this would have been considered a sign of weakness.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in sport. After period-related cramps forced GB sprinter Dina Asher-Smith to slow to a jog in the European Championships’ 100m final, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Eilish McColgan revealed period pain twice forced her to withdraw from competitions. Writing in her blog, McColgan said the issue would be taken far more seriously if it affected men.

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The same is true of period poverty. There has been much discussion about why the inability to afford sanitary pads or tampons has been given a special tag. Isn’t the struggle to buy any essential product - food, heat, tampons - really just “poverty”? But because men don’t have to factor it into their budget, it doesn’t occur to them there’s a problem. The tag brings it to public attention.

It was women who first understood that. It was women who campaigned on the issue, it was women who championed the Bill, and it should be women who are delivering on the policy. To place a man centre-stage once a hard-fought goal has been achieved is not a victory for equality; it is exactly the kind of side-lining, thunder-stealing erasure that has undermined women’s endeavours and shored up the patriarchy since the dawn of time.

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