The Scottish Government will hand out free sanitary products to those in need as part of a pilot project in Aberdeen in what is essentially the first national government-sponsored effort of its type.

The six-month pilot will be run by Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE), a social enterprise focused on improving health and wellbeing for those in poverty through the FareShare surplus food network. It will benefit at least 1,000 women and girls from low-income homes from the Scottish Government scheme which is backed by funding of £42,500.

Equalities Secretary Angela Constance said: “It is unacceptable that any woman or girl in Scotland should be unable to access sanitary products. That is why, as part of our wider aims to eradicate poverty from our country, we are exploring how to make products freely available to low-income groups. The pilot in Aberdeen is a first step to help us understand the barriers women and girls face – and to help us develop a sensitive and dignified solution to making these products easily accessible to those who need them.”

CFINE chief executive Dave Simmers said: “Over a woman’s lifetime, sanitary products cost on average more than £5,000, a significant sum for those on low-income. Many cannot afford them and may use inappropriate methods or miss school.”

Labor MSP Monica Lennon, who has been a vocal campaigner on the issue of “period poverty”, said the move was welcome but did not go far enough.

Read:Kenyan government to provide sanitary pads for girls in public schools

She added: “I’m pleased the campaign I have started as an opposition MSP has pushed SNP ministers to act but the reality is that women and girls urgently need national action now. A pilot scheme is a welcome step in the right direction but we must go much further to help women and girls across the country that are facing a monthly struggle to access the products they need. We need to end period poverty and improve access to sanitary products right across Scotland, and that’s why I will soon be launching a consultation on a member’s bill proposal which will give all women in Scotland the right to access these products for free, regardless of their income.”

What’s your move Africa?

Although several countries are on the path to establishing sanitary dignity by providing free sanitary products to low income girls and women the viability of this; outside of the budgetary implications; has not been explored exhaustively.

File picture. The Deputy Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams with learners from Minerva High School at the launch of Sanitary Pads Project led by Proudly South African in Partnership with Sun International and Proctor and Gamble (P&;G). 18/09/2014. (Photo: GCIS)/flickr

Making sanitary products available only solves the problem in part. Yes this is the bulk and some would say the corresponding issues that free sanitary products may bring can be tackled after a reality where the products themselves are readily available to all women and girls. But let’s for a moment think about these implications for the proposed beneficiaries.

1. Education for the girls and proper sensitization of teachers or faculty.

In schools where sanitary pads or puberty education are not provided, levels of absenteeism among girls are higher, on average, compared with schools where girls received pads, education, or both.

Read:“Sex is a choice and menstruation is not”: There is no dignity in education without proper sanitation

South African Communications Deputy Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams who launched Sanitary Pads Project said there is a need for young girls to be taught about their bodies.  “As young girls, they need to be taught about their bodies and to appreciate their bodies. Teachers have a crucial role to play to ensure that girls are empowered,” she said.

A study by menstrual health charity Femme International found that 75% of girls in Nairobi’s Mathare slum had no idea what their period was before it arrived and were therefore unprepared on top of being ill-equipped for their period.

Early this year KwaZulu Natal’s Department of Education launched a programme to distribute free sanitary towels to schoolgirls (Twitter: @ANCKZN)

2. Sanitation infrastructure.

It is undeniable that sanitation infrastructure at public schools vary substantially, and continue to reflect historical resource allocation and distribution patterns, with the worst conditions inordinately affecting lower income learners and those in rural schools.

In about 50% of the least developed countries, there’s no safe place for girls to change their pad while at school. “Either they don’t have toilets, or they don’t have toilets that are clean or safe,” Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams adds. This might mean there’s no door, or no clean water nearby.

In the South African National Education Infrastructure Management System Standard Report 2014 of the 23,740 public schools in the country 474 have no sanitation facilities, 4 681 are forced to make do with an unreliable water supply and 604 have no water. 49% either have no sanitation facilities or are forced to rely on pit latrines or a combination of pit latrines and other facilities. That is just short of half of all public schools.

Disposing of throw-away pads is another challenge all together in some areas, due to complications brought about by taboos surrounding menstruation, such as the belief held in some communities across the continent that menstrual blood cannot be burned or ‘casually’ handled.

Products sponsored by Proctor and Gamble (P&G) at the Launch of Sanitary Pads Project led by Proudly South African in Partnership with Sun International and Proctor and Gamble (P&G). 18/09/2014. (Photo: GCIS)/Flickr

3. Reusable Pads.

For girls using washable products, another concern is having access to soap, water or a private place to clean and dry pads.

“If you think in terms of infection control, what you want is to dry them outside in the sunlight, and those are conditions which are not always very easily possible.” While researching the issue in Uganda, Paul Montgomery, professor of social intervention at the University of Birmingham found examples of girls in boarding schools drying their pads under their bunk beds because of the stigma attached to menstruation. In other studies, women have reported attempting to dry cloths under other layers of clothing so that they remain hidden.

4. Luke warm Community and Governmental Buy-In.

The numerous challenges, and their far-reaching consequences, underscore the need for and importance of a comprehensive policy framework to tackle not only the availability of the products but the lack of education and sanitation infrastructure that compound the issue.

“When the education system provides adequate safe toilets, when girls are across the board given the information and support they need as they come of age and as their bodies change as they try to manage their periods in school. That large scale buy-in of the public sector, and of the social norms of the community and the society are what will make the biggest changes ultimately.” says Marni Sommer, associate professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University.

Suffice it to say readily available free sanitation products that are distributed in a manner that safeguards the beneficiaries’ dignity would be revolutionary for the girls and women everywhere. It is however important to scrutinize in what new ways this immense gift would present challenges.

Which is the horse and which is the cart? And how interesting that developments in space science are steadily occurring when we cannot yet solve an issue that affects half the world’s population every month of the fertile lives.