The pandemic may have put our lives on hold, but our bodies aren’t about to stop menstruating (unless of course you become pregnant!). We know a lot of women in our community are currently expecting, but one thing mothers and mothers-to-be have in common is this: in some form or another, periods are part of our lives. Did you know that, on average, a woman will use over 9,000 tampons in her lifetime and spend over $18,000 (USD) on feminine hygiene products?
As the pandemic continues, the regular task of managing a period (which is second nature for many of us) is becoming increasingly difficult. More women are being put in the position of choosing between feminine hygiene products and other necessities like food or medications. One survey found as many as 1 in 4 women are having additional issues managing their periods during the pandemic — pushing more women into period poverty.
Even if you are far removed from this experience yourself (as we hope that so many of you are) we know one thing about this community: you care about women’s health. And that’s what this topic is all about.
So… what exactly is period poverty?
Period poverty is the inability to afford or access menstrual hygiene products, bathrooms, and proper waste management. There are a lot of factors that can contribute to this: societal stigmas, socioeconomic situation, miseducation, and even sexism surrounding the female body and menstruation.
This generally impacts women who are lower-income but other circumstances, such as where women live and complicated home lives, can make it difficult to access period products regularly as well. If you’ve ever heard of the “pink tax” you’ll know that in some countries menstrual hygiene products are considered ‘luxury’ or ‘nonessential’ items and subject to such taxes. This pushes feminine hygiene products further out of reach for women in difficult financial situations, such as those exacerbated by the pandemic.
How many women face this?
More than 500 million women experience period poverty every month around the world. The average woman begins menstruating between the ages of 11 to 14, and will continue every month until menopause occurs around ages 40 to 51 (barring pregnancies and time spent breastfeeding). Add all those periods together and that’s roughly 3,500 days — about 10 years — that women spend menstruating in their lifetime. That’s quite a long time if you’re able to easily access period care products, and even longer if you’re unable to.
No surprise here, but women prove to be incredibly resourceful in navigating period poverty. Researchers at St. Louis University found women who weren’t able to afford menstrual products in the city turned to diapers or paper towels from public restrooms as substitutes. In India, it’s suggested that around 42 million women make do with leaves, rags, and even mud to manage their periods. But just because these women work to find ways around this, doesn’t make it OK. A lack of access to period products makes it incredibly difficult for women to live their everyday lives, impacting school, work, and overall wellbeing.
Research shows access to sanitary products has a direct connection to a woman’s health; with period poverty linked to poorer quality of life, poorer mental health, as well as an increased risk of UTI’s and reproductive issues. And it’s impacting our children, too. In the US, about 1 in 5 girls will miss school because they don’t have access to proper hygiene products. In the UK, about half of adolescent girls have missed a full day of school due to their period and about 1 in 10 can’t afford menstrual products.
Now, keep in mind, this was an issue before the Coronavirus pandemic upended our lives. But as the pandemic continues more and more women are facing financial strain and forced to choose between food and shelter and managing their period every month.
What’s being done to help?
Women’s health has been prioritized more than ever in recent years and many countries around the world are taking a stance on issues like this. Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and (as of January 1st 2021) the United Kingdom have abolished the tax on menstrual products. Scotland led the forefront of reform and actually made menstrual products free for all, meaning local authorities had a responsibility to ensure anyone who needs them, can get them.
The United States has unfortunately lagged behind other countries in terms of period poverty. Federal prisons only made period products free in 2017 and 30 states still issue a tax on menstrual products; earning a total of over $150 million each year on taxes from menstrual products alone.
In the US, food stamp programs don’t cover menstrual products and aren’t considered an essential item exempt from taxes. Organizations like Period Equity are fighting to change this, and arguing that taxes on menstrual hygiene products are a “direct violation of the equal protection clause as it targets a specific bodily function that is unique to women”.
And people all over the world have been stepping up and doing what they can to ensure those who need period products have access to them.
- A mother-daughter run organization launched in Philadelphia called No More Secrets delivers pads and tampons door-to-door for people in need every day of the year.
- Two high school students in New York City advocated to the City Council to distribute much needed menstrual products through food hub sites — an innovative idea to expand menstrual product accessibility during the pandemic which now has over 200 sites operating.
- Students at a high school in California started a grassroots organization called Periods with Pride, where they host local drives to distribute period products to those in need.
Another opportunity to make a change, that starts with you
The shame and societal stigma surrounding women’s menstrual cycles also contributes to period poverty. It’s something that is embedded into our psyche at an early age and women all around the world experience it on a wide and ranging spectrum. Think about it: do you discreetly hide your tampons or pads on the way to a public bathroom? If you don’t, power to you. If you do, that’s also incredibly normal behavior because society has made it so.
Shame around menstrual cycles can lead to anxiety and depression, and even force young girls to skip school to avoid being teased by others. Societal stigmas on menstruation can make women feel disempowered and embarrassed about what their bodies are doing, oftentimes leaving young girls to keep issues to themselves and not ask questions about periods or period products in general. As so many of us are raising daughters while navigating these social stigmas ourselves, we can’t help but look for opportunities to change this narrative.
Periods are one of the most common and natural functions of the human body. It’s as biological as any other process and deserves to be accepted and normalized — because they’re definitely not going anywhere. So we want to start this conversation right here, right now, with you. How were you made to feel about your period as a young girl? How do you feel about it now? How can we all shift the conversation around periods into a more empowering space? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s see what difference we can make.