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A period of power: interview with Monica Lennon

A period of power: interview with Monica Lennon

“I don’t want to be remembered as the tampon lady, but if I am then so be it,” Monica Lennon laughs as she sips tea out of a particularly apt ‘votes for women’ mug.

Her office is adorned with similar feminist messages – one striking poster warns that to prepare young girls for their future working life, they should start receiving less pocket money than the boys in their family – while a couple of hardback books on periods sit neatly on her desk.

Lennon has had a busy few weeks in the limelight after her world-leading period poverty bill was backed by the Scottish Parliament, appearing on TV screens and in newspapers across the world. All eyes – especially women’s eyes – were on Scotland to see whether politicians here would be bold enough to back the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. And, despite last-minute doubts that the bill would fall after the Scottish Government raised serious financial concerns, it turned out they were indeed brave enough.

Lennon is quick to point out that the campaign to secure free period products for all in Scotland is one which started at grassroots level, whilst also having the support of politicians from all parties.

“It’s a great feeling when the parliament comes together and we do have that cross-party spirit of working,” she says. “I have been inundated with media requests from all around the world and I think the way we approached the debate and the vote has really put the Scottish Parliament and Scotland in a really good light. We are seen as a global leader now.”

It’s always been about addressing the needs of people who are in extreme poverty and low income

Lennon first started working on plans to address period poverty in Scotland in 2016, shortly after she became an MSP.

Back then, she says, many of her fellow MSPs didn’t even accept that period poverty was a real issue, but since then there has been a raft of evidence which has proven otherwise.

A survey of more than 2,000 people by Young Scot found that about one in four respondents at school, college or university in Scotland had struggled to access period products.

Across the UK, about 10 per cent of girls have been unable to afford period products; 15 per cent have struggled to afford them; and 19 per cent have changed to a less suitable product due to cost, according to research, and almost half of the girls surveyed said they had missed school because of their period.

Studies also found that period stigma is an issue for girls and young women, with 71 per cent of 14 to 21-year-olds feeling embarrassed buying period products, so tackling this stigma has also played an important role in putting together the bill.

“It’s always been about addressing the needs of people who are in extreme poverty and low income and have a struggle around affordability, but more broadly, it’s about access, it’s about recognising that periods are completely normal, so why should you have to hunt about an office or borrow emergency tampons or sneak about with them up your sleeve?” says Lennon. “It’s about making sure that as well as having toilet roll and handwash in loos, we also have pads and tampons and reusable options too.”

That all seems perfectly reasonable, but with the Scottish Government estimating annual costs of £24.1m, compared with Lennon’s £9.7m projection, it’s no surprise that the bill has had its opponents.

Critics believe there’s no justification for making free sanitary products a universal policy; that only those living in poverty or with a medical condition such as endometriosis should be entitled.

“Over the last three or four years, I’ve heard all the arguments [such as] ‘this is ridiculous, surely other issues are more important’,” says Lennon.

It’s not about taking things that you don’t need; it’s about recognising that periods are normal.

“Some MSPs in the debate, particularly some of the men, characterised the products as being affordable, but £5 a month or £10 a month isn’t always affordable for people on low incomes who have other budget pressures. So, it’s not really about the experience of MSPs because most of us, particularly in our current situation, we are very well paid, we won’t be experiencing period poverty now.

“But many of us have benefitted from period products here in parliament. There are times when I’ve been in the chamber for quite a few hours, back-to-back debates and questions and maybe a members’ debate and you don’t always have a purse or a handbag with you, so I’ve used the free products in parliament. It’s not about taking things that you don’t need; it’s about recognising that periods are normal.

“This is only the second time we’ve had a debate about periods and period products in the chamber so I’m quite happy to be accommodating of the journey we’re on.”

She adds: “What’s really kept me motivated is the stories of people who have said, ‘I have struggled, I have stayed at home and not been at school’, or teachers who’ve said they’ve had to go into their own handbags and give products to young people in their class. It’s been quite upsetting to hear about the way people improvise, here in Scotland. Often, we think of this as being an issue in poor countries, but it’s happening here in Scotland and we can do something about it.”

Lennon acknowledges that she’s been “fortunate enough” never to have experienced period poverty, but says she still remembers the anxiety and embarrassment she felt when buying sanitary products in shops when she was a teenager, or having to carry them in her schoolbag.

She wants a different world for her 13-year-old daughter – who was in the public gallery when the bill was debated in parliament – and other young girls to grow up in, where periods are just “normal” and there’s no stigma attached.

“Hopefully, she’ll look back when the bill is passed and feel that she was part of that,” says Lennon. “Of course, the families of MSPs cope with a lot, you know, I do work long hours away from home at times and the phone never stops. So hopefully, she will have had a bit of an eye-opener to see the work that we do has meaning and it has purpose and it does help people.”

Lennon’s own upbringing gave her a slight insight into political life as her uncle was a local Labour councillor and she used to help him out leafleting, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she joined the Labour Party.

She left school at 16 and went to university, the first in her family to do so, and embarked on a career as a chartered town planner after she graduated.

“I was born in 1981 in the Thatcher era and when I was leaving school and getting ready to go to university, that’s when Labour were elected and Tony Blair was Prime Minister, so I suppose I maybe took all that for granted, that we had a Labour government.

I just felt you can’t just sit in the house and worry and moan about it, do something about it

“Then the financial crash happened and I was made redundant and I worked in the private sector at that time. I remember getting close to the general election and starting to realise there was no guarantee that Labour were going to win again.

“And I have to say it was probably more through fear and worry rather than hope, but I was generally worried about the Tories being elected and forming a government. And that’s what motivated me. I just felt you can’t just sit in the house and worry and moan about it, do something about it. So, I joined the party. And the next day I got a phone call from Labour HQ, saying, ‘welcome, would you like to come and campaign, when are you available?’”

Lennon was elected onto South Lanarkshire Council in 2012, before joining Holyrood in 2016.

She was appointed by then leader Kezia Dugdale – someone who Lennon described as an “inspiration” to her in those early days – as Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on inequalities, and when Richard Leonard became leader in 2017, he made her spokesperson for communities and local government.

She was then given the health spokesperson job in 2018 after Anas Sarwar was sacked from the role, and has used this post to campaign for another issue close to her heart: better rehabilitation for people addicted to drugs and alcohol, and support for those children living with a parent with addiction issues.

Lennon is in a better position than most to talk about this with authority, compassion and empathy, having grown up with her father’s alcoholism, which eventually killed him when he was just 60 years old, and has spoken openly and bravely about her own lived experience.

People just get labelled as a drug addict or an alcoholic. And we lose their whole identity

“There was a time when I joined parliament that I was being asked to comment a lot on statistics about the latest drug deaths and how many people are affected by problem drinking and other health inequalities and I just felt something was being lost. You know, we were looking at percentages and numbers.

“And it’s easy to give a press comment and give a quick clip for the media. But there was something really bugging me about it because I felt we were really losing the human story here. You know, these are people’s loved ones, they’re mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and people’s hopes and dreams and I felt strongly about that because my dad had died just a year before I was elected.”

Lennon is now fighting back tears, but is keen to continue. “He died in May 2015. People just get labelled as a drug addict or an alcoholic. And we lose their whole identity. The fact that they were funny, they were clever, they had hopes, they had dreams. No one is perfect, but we sometimes speak about people affected by substance use, which includes drugs and alcohol, we talk about them as if they are other people, other people’s families when actually, it could be any one of us.

“So, I just felt it was important to push back a little bit and say, actually, it’s important that we look at these trends and what that’s telling us and look at the human tragedy. But what we really need to do is address some of the underlying stigma, and that’s when I decided to raise it at First Minister’s Questions. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really planned to do it. It was a little bit impulsive, and I hadn’t really discussed it with the family beforehand, but I just felt it was important to say something.”

Lennon believes that everyone has a responsibility to help tackle the stigma, but adds that the “legal barriers” also need to be re-examined.

“That’s why I do feel strongly on the issue of drugs that we do need to move towards decriminalisation. Because if someone’s life has been overtaken by substance use, but they’re frightened they might get arrested, that they might have their children taken off them, they might lose everything, they’re not going to come forward.

“It’s estimated that around 60,000 young people in Scotland under the age of 16 are affected by parental drinking and it could be higher. That’s why the roll-out of access to mental health counsellors in schools is so important.

“Young people are protective of their parents. They don’t want to get their mums and dads and carers into trouble. But we need them to have the ability to have a conversation.

“Recently, I was speaking to someone who told me that a member of their family is a teacher. And they had a young person in school who was disappearing throughout the school day and was coming back late after lunch. So, they got them in for a chat and said, ‘is there a problem, what’s going on?’

“And the young person opened up and said, ‘well, it’s my mum. I have to go home at lunchtime to check on her’. The mum was an alcoholic and this young person was going home to check in on mum and make sure she was OK and heat up some soup. That’s what’s going on in some households.”

And if there’s anyone who can understand the worry, stress and emotional drain that can have on a young person, it’s Lennon.

At the end of the interview, she apologises for getting upset, but it is her ability to truly empathise that makes her a different kind of politician.

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