By Joanna Chin | Staff Writer
I’ve never questioned that I have a ready stock of pads and tampons stuffed in the drawer under my sink. I can easily locate a bathroom to grudgingly attend to that “time of the month” before moving on with my life. I’ve never worried about lacking ibuprofen for heavy cramp days or a private space to retreat when my mood swings.
My name is Joanna, and I have period privilege. I hadn’t realized that was a thing until recently, but that is, after all, the very nature of privilege.
Menstruation is a biological process as organic as breathing and eating. While we consider food, water, and housing essential to a healthy quality of life, why don’t we approach access to period supplies in the same way?
No Padded Buffers Here
The ACLU reports that people who menstruate can expect to pay up to $1,000 (adjust for 2021 inflation) for menstruation hygiene supplies during their life — that is, if they can even afford them.
According to 2019 Census data, at least one in nine U.S. women lives in poverty, and women are more likely than men to experience poverty. The data also shows that percentages increase significantly for women of color and single mothers.
When facing these economic challenges, exacerbated now during a global pandemic, people who menstruate struggle to make unnatural choices over a natural process. Some prioritize buying food over tampons or water over toilet paper and sanitary products.
Period supplies are not covered by government assistance programs like SNAP, WIC, or Medicaid, and even though some flexible spending accounts have recently been expanded to include menstruation hygiene products, this adjustment assumes you’re in a profession that provides that kind of health benefit.
Meanwhile, almost 67% of low income women can’t afford period products.
This doesn’t even touch on the additional challenges encountered by people with housing insecurity as well as those currently incarcerated, where humiliation and shame over lack of access to laundry and consistent sanitary supplies can be a daily reality.
Confronting Menstrual Inequity
Menstrual inequity is the dirty pad our society prefers to throw out rather than acknowledge as a real problem. It’s more common to see lines for food pantries and clothing drives than a line for free pads, especially during a pandemic when these competing needs can easily be overlooked.
Unlike Viagra, Rogaine, and condoms, feminine hygiene products are currently subject to sales tax in 30 states. This is coined as the “tampon tax” and is debated between equity activists and conservative tax scholars since it increases barriers to accessing these necessities.
The disparities in access to menstrual products also point to ongoing stigmas regarding the value and cleanliness of women’s bodies. Women’s bodily needs are often “deliberately ignored” and neglected rather than accepted as natural human rights worthy of investment, and the financial and social burden is instead dumped on the individual regardless of socioeconomic status.
Resisting the Tide
This is not the end of the line, period. We can choose to resist the underlying narrative that privatizes people who menstruate and the hygiene products they need. This is not only a public health issue, but it is also a human rights one.
“Femtech” startups are already bringing attention to how corporate interests bank on women’s sanitary needs, collaboratively developing alternative resources that help women stay informed on their health and access products with reduced environmental waste and financial cost.
Global organizations like Unicef are tackling period poverty by promoting increased health education and demystifying common misconceptions surrounding periods. Pass the Pad is another internationally-founded NGO that fights period poverty in Uganda. Others are US-focused, addressing the tampon tax, lack of access, and eco-friendliness.
How can we get involved? We can join ongoing efforts to:
- Advocate for increased development and distribution of menstrual hygiene products in ways that account for cultural, geographic, and religious specificity.
- Support legislation that mandates free access to period supplies in schools, prisons, homeless shelters, and other public spaces. Just last week the NZ prime minister announced a new program that would make menstrual products free in schools for the next three years!
- Educate our communities about menstrual health and share our stories to decrease the stigma around this essential topic.
- Support organizations distributing period supplies to those in need while also seeking long-term solutions.
Consider this list of Black-owned feminine care products and check out the following organizations and initiatives:
- Period Equity
- No More Secrets
- I Support the Girls
- Free The Tampons (has advocacy kits for schools and the workplace)
- Helping Women Period
- The Pad Project
Period poverty is an issue that unites the intimately personal with the political. By advocating for those in need of menstrual support, we join the flow of collective responsibility which demands informed action from each of us.