Riding the B-train, a homeless woman boarded the car I was in. She asked if anyone could give her a pad or tampon, and, luckily, I had a Kotex pad in my backpack. I handed it to her. She thanked me, placed the pad in her pocket, and continued to walk down the train car. That simple interaction made me pause and think. Curious, I did some googling when I got home; I read about period poverty and the menstrual movement. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading advocate for equitable menstrual policy in the US, explains my experience on the B-train quite well: “For those who can afford it, periods are simply a necessary nuisance—and tampons an obligatory monthly expense. But for low-income women and girls, and especially those who are homeless, lack of ability to access feminine hygiene products can compromise their health and well-being.”
If you do menstruate, take a moment to imagine what it would be like if you got your period and had no access to period products and no bathroom or shower of your own, but you had the same pressure to go about your day and function as if you were not on your period. I began to acknowledge my privilege in access to menstrual products. Through my research, I found advocates like Weiss-Wolf and Period, a global youth-run nonprofit that fights to end period poverty and stigma, that strive towards a future in which access to menstrual products is not a privilege but a right. Weiss-Wolf and Period, for example, have greatly contributed to the “menstrual movement,” which is committed to ending the lack of accessibility to menstrual products through achieving menstrual equity, ensuring that menstrual products are affordable, safe, and available to those in need.
The total cost of your period over your lifetime comes to approximately $18,173, accounting for the cost of items that are needed to cope with the pain of menstruation— such as pain relievers, heating pads, and birth control (Kane, Huffington Post). In 2015, women, the majority of menstruators in the US, were 35 percent more likely than men to live in poverty (Tucker and Lowell, National Snapshot). The unaffordability of menstrual products in tandem with the high poverty rates among women in the US gives rise to period poverty: “the state of being unable to afford period products (or necessary items to feel clean) while menstruating” (Okamoto, Period Power).
The lack of equitable access to menstrual products is a direct consequence of a flawed policy system. On 11th grade Service Learning Day, Period @ HM held a workshop during which we wrote letters to governors in states that have not taken steps toward tackling period poverty in an effort to encourage lawmakers to take action. Legislation that fails to address menstrual equity exacerbates the existing inequalities that place low-income menstruators at a disadvantage. The “tampon tax” in 33 states taxes menstrual products as luxuries, rather than as necessities. This tax creates added distress for vulnerable communities, augmenting the hardships that come with having to choose between buying food or period products. Food stamps do not cover menstrual products, and those who trade food stamps for money or products can be prosecuted. As a result, many who cannot afford pads and tampons find themselves turning to unsafe options to manage their periods. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a recent study revealed that two-thirds of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri resorted to using cloth, rags, or paper as a substitute for period products in the past year. Moreover, only one federal law currently addresses menstrual equity, requiring the provision of free menstrual products in federal women’s facilities, although it is not always enforced. Incarcerated women are commonly provided with insufficient and low-quality products, if products at all, forcing them to spend their limited wages on overpriced products or to free bleed. For example, the ACLU said that Florida prisoners earn less than 50 cents per hour on average but have to pay over four dollars for four tampons. Period products should be a right, yet in many cases, are being unjustly deemed a privilege, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for stronger legislation to move towards menstrual equity.
Coronavirus has exposed the innumerable limitations of the country’s social security programs, medical priorities, and economic resources; lack of emphasis placed on menstrual health is quickly emerging as a prime offender. Though the menstrual movement has been slowly working its way into the lexicon of American politics and advocacy, it is still relatively new, and consequently, has not received extensive media coverage. As such, many people are not even aware of the gravity of lacking menstrual products. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the circumstances that have made it difficult to purchase menstrual products historically. Marginalized communities have endured some of the worst of the pandemic’s effects––infection, unemployment, and death. The tendency of those with ample financial resources to buy products in bulk has left many stores with empty shelves and desperate buyers. Access to free menstrual products has been halted as well; individuals who receive free products from institutions like schools or universities no longer have a consistent and safe supplier of products. As shelters became overwhelmed, shortages of menstrual supplies were reported as early as mid-March. It is imperative that in these strenuous times, the burden of menstruation––and where to access the products that ensure safety and dignity––does not prevail as a dominant obstacle.
Links for Sources (in order):
Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement