According to The World Bank, on any given day nearly 800 million people are menstruating, yet many people lack the necessary sanitation products needed to manage their periods. This lack of supplies is known as “period poverty” and affects millions of people in the United State and across the globe. Why does period poverty exist? The answers may lie in the way menstruation is portrayed and addressed by those around us and the lack of affordable menstrual management supplies. Some keys to ending period poverty include normalizing menstruation through science-based, age-appropriate education at school, home, and in the community, increasing efforts to get period management supplies in the hands of those that need them most, and continuing to challenge current laws that impart unfair and inequitable taxes on menstrual products and supplies.
While not frequently discussed, period poverty existed well before the Covid-19 pandemic and only worsened as layoffs were implemented across the United States. In fact, Always, a brand that makes menstrual supplies, conducted an independent survey that showed 1 in 3 parents have concerns about how to afford menstrual products during this time. I Support the Girls, a non-profit organization based in Maryland that uses the tagline “periods don’t stop for pandemics”, has noted a 35% increase in demand for menstrual supplies since March 2020. In response, I Support the Girls has collected and distributed more than 2 million menstrual products to those in need. Other organizations are following suit. Period, a non-profit based out of Oregon dedicated to ending period poverty, distributed over 5 million menstrual products in 2020. Countless local girl scout troops are calling on their school districts to provide free period supplies in school bathrooms while parent groups are holding product donation drives to help end period poverty.
It should be noted that period poverty cannot simply be solved just by getting products to those in need. Some organizations are also advocating for access to affordable menstrual products and are challenging lawmakers on federal, state, and local levels to update unfair taxing laws and government assistance regulations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture more than 40 million Americans were enrolled in programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in 2020, yet menstrual supplies are not covered under these programs. The American Civil Liberties Union has made a call to action to deem menstrual products allowable under government assistance programs. Currently, 30 states have a “tampon tax” on the purchase of tampons, viewing them a non-essential, luxury item. Organizations such as Period Equity and Tax Free Period are making it their mission to end period poverty by demanding these states release their tampon tax laws by Tax Day 2021.
These efforts, however, can only be successful if the attitudes around menstruation and the underlying social stigma are addressed. Menstrual supplies are considered non-essential and overly taxed because of a historical stigma associated with menstruation. Years of outdated attitudes have led to the belief that menstruation is unsanitary and those who menstruate are unclean. Across the world, there continues to be a mindset that people who menstruate cannot attend religious ceremonies, participate in community events, or need to avoid working in the kitchen. Many are banished to separate living spaces and left to sleep in huts or tents. Some of these beliefs are a result of a long-standing lack of understanding of the human reproduction system and the importance of a menstrual cycle to the overall health and well-being of those that menstruate. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have established standards of practice to include the evaluation of menstrual cycles in annual physicals and exams and encourage young people to track their menstrual cycles as a tool to evaluate their overall health. Malaka Gharib, a recent contributor to NPR, indicated that in order to reduce stigma, education around menstrual health should start early, include all genders, and be normalized at home through open and honest communication. Community and school-based education programs, such as those offered by Candor Health Education, are also key to reducing social stigma through the implementation of science-based education showing that menstruation is a normal biological function and a sign of a healthy reproductive system.
Period poverty has existed for generations despite the amount of people across the world needing access to menstrual supplies that are both affordable and accessible. Providing menstrual supplies free of charge and eliminating financial strain around access to period management products will lessen period poverty for many people struggling to make the choice to feed their families or address their menstrual health. Science based education in schools and the community, along with candid conversations at home, can help eliminate stigma around menstruation and create significant change in the attitudes and beliefs around reproductive health. Eliminating stigma can lead to the removal of unfair tax and government assistances laws and regulations that exacerbate period poverty.
Written by: Sandi Metcalfe-Health Educator, Candor Health Education