by Hannah Sachs-Wetstone
What is period poverty?
Let’s talk about period poverty. Period poverty occurs when menstruators cannot access the menstrual products, underwear, and pain medication they need to maintain their menstrual health due to a variety of factors, such as cost, stigma, and gender discrimination. Globally, there are 1.8 billion people who menstruate and 500 million people who do not have the ability to maintain their menstrual health.
Menstrual health is a human rights issue. All those who menstruate have the right to the knowledge, products, opportunity, water and sanitation infrastructure, privacy, and safety they need to hygienically handle their periods. The consequences of period poverty are not only physical and mental, but potentially social as well. Menstruators may miss out on opportunities at work and school and face the high costs of menstrual products. Gender inequity is a main cause of period poverty, and period poverty exacerbates that inequity — monthly.
Period poverty is a global issue. Nearly 25 million women in the U.S. live below the poverty line and rely on programs like WIC or SNAP benefits, which do not cover menstrual products. There is also a tampon tax in 30 states, which place a cost burden on menstruators throughout their lives for a routine and natural bodily function, particularly low-income folks. In addition to the cost burden, period poverty leads to absences from school and work, infections due to the use of unhygienic alternatives to menstrual products, and mental health challenges including period trauma.
Even within the U.S., not everyone experiences periods and period poverty in the same way. In an interview for The Lily, Amber Wynne, a student at Hampton University, said, “In the media, we still see the same cisgender White women who represent all menstruators as the faces of brands.” Ending period stigma and period poverty will require an opening of this conversation to include other voices, including people of color and non-cis woman menstruators. Black and Latinx people, particularly teenagers and those who are low-income, are often the most impacted by period poverty, which echoes the racial and ethnic income disparities that exist in the U.S.
Non-cis women who menstruate, including transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people, also experience barriers to menstrual health. Transgender Americans are more likely to live in poverty, so trans menstruators may face financial constraints that undermine their access to menstrual products. Some menstruators may also experience gender dysphoria because of the highly gendered treatment of menstruation in medical settings and in the media. Finally, safety concerns can arise for menstruators in gendered public bathrooms.
Another group often excluded from the dominant conversations about menstruation are disabled people and people with chronic diseases. There are a variety of different menstrual products but not all of them will work for everyone. People with impaired mobility or vision, chronic illnesses that affect menstruation, or caregivers may need alternatives to pads and tampons that are not always accessible. Again, the high cost of menstrual management is prohibitive here because disabled people are more likely to live in poverty.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, period poverty has worsened everywhere, including in the U.S., because of financial distress, price increases, and lockdown closures and restrictions. There is still a lot to be done to end period poverty and there are things that you can do in your own community to help.
What can you do to help combat period poverty?
There are many organizations working to combat period stigma and poverty in the U.S. and around the world. Teenagers and young people are at the forefront of this fight. PERIOD is a global organization that fights to end period poverty and stigma through service, education, and advocacy. I talked to Isha Varizani, a junior at Tufts University, and the current president of PERIOD at Tufts.
“Growing up in India, I was exposed to inequality at a young age. This came in many forms, but watching the harsh realities of menstrual inequality unfold in front of my very own eyes was harrowing,” Varizani remembers. She started volunteering for organizations fighting period poverty back home in India and brought this passion to the PERIOD organization at Tufts. Varizani describes the goals of PERIOD at Tufts: “We want to listen and understand the needs of our peers to adequately allocate time, money, and effort to making our campus more accessible and equitable.” Their next big goal is to provide “menstrual supplies in all Tufts bathrooms, increasing accessibility and reducing stigma,” she says.
Varizani discusses various actions the group has taken, including a packing party “wherein members of the Tufts community came together to pack over 600 menstrual kits.” PERIOD at Tufts has also engaged in “virtual fundraising and spreading awareness by activities such as trivia nights, selling self-care kits, and creating a series of round table talks where community members could safely share their experiences while also educating themselves about relevant issues.”
Whether on your campus or in your community, you can get involved in the fight against period poverty by packing and distributing menstrual products for the unhoused, starting your own PERIOD chapter, delivering free menstrual products on your campus, or supporting other organizations like Freedom 4 Girls and the Alliance for Period Supplies.
Hannah Sachs-Wetstone is an intern at Our Bodies Ourselves Today, a new online platform created by the Center for Women’s Health & Human Rights at Suffolk University in partnership with Our Bodies Ourselves that is set to launch in 2022.