It's National Period Day: 7 Tangible Ways To Help End Period Poverty

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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Half of the human population menstruates, but not everyone who menstruates has access to the basic period products and facilities they need during it.

Across many low- and middle-income countries, millions of menstruating people struggle to get access to tampons, pads, and clean places to change them. A 2016 report compiled by consulting firm FSG found 70% of women in India cannot afford to buy menstrual pads; 88% use alternatives like rags, sand, or ash to try to manage their periods; and 40% of government schools lacked a functioning toilet. According to reporting by the Guardian, the Indian ministry of health estimates 70% of women are at risk of "severe infection" because of these conditions.

Global research has shown this period poverty affects girls' educational attainment, with girls missing class during their periods or dropping out of school entirely once menstruation begins. When girls have access to these basic menstrual products, girls' school absenteeism and dropout rates drop significantly

Period poverty is also rampant across America. One study earlier this year found nearly two-thirds of low-income women in St. Louis couldn't afford menstrual products last year, with more than one in five women having this problem every month. Half of them said they'd had to choose between buying menstrual products and buying food. The situation is exacerbated for menstruating people dealing with homelessness and those who are incarcerated, where resources are scarce in general. 

The good news is the movement to end period poverty is growing stronger. Today (October 19, 2019) marks the first-ever National Period Day, launched by the global youth-led nonprofit PERIOD. The occasion will be marked with rallies in all 50 states where menstruators and allies will be demanding policymakers to take two specific actions toward ending period poverty:

  • Make period products freely accessible in all schools, shelters, and prisons.
  • Eliminate sales taxes on period products (aka "the tampon tax").

"Simply put, menstrual hygiene is a right, not a privilege," PERIOD's national petition reads. "Unlike most poverty-related issues, this one is solvable."

Even if you can't make it out to a rally, National Period Day is just the beginning of what will be a yearlong campaign involving a national collection of period products, lobby days, and more in early 2020. 

Wondering what else you can do? Here are a few tangible ways you can help support menstrual health for all and help put an end to period poverty: 

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1. Get educated. 

Want to learn more about menstrual activism? Periods Gone Public by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, co-founder of legal organization Period Equity and vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice, is a great place to start. 

2. Donate period products. 

Many local organizations serving low-income, homeless, and other vulnerable populations accept donations of menstrual care products. I Support the Girls collects menstrual care products (and bras!) to distribute to these organizations. They've got a list of locations across the U.S. and a few international ones where you can donate, and they'll also help you out if you want to start a local collection drive in your area to then donate in bulk.

If you don't want to deal with boxes of cups and tampons, you can also just make financial donations directly to period organizations like I Support the Girls or PERIOD.

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3. If you use tampons or pads, get intentional about where you purchase. 

If you're purchasing menstrual care products every month, you might as well make that money go toward a good cause: Cora, which offers organic tampons and customizable period subscription boxes, partners with local organizations in India and Kenya to provide a girl with a month of period products and sex education for every month's supply of Cora products purchased.

4. Support reusable period care. 

Reusable period care products can also make an enormous difference in the lives of people who can't afford to continuously purchase new disposable products every month. Take the menstrual cup: One cup holds up to 12 hours' worth of blood, and many brands can be reused for over 10 years.

"A small investment in reusable period care has the power to change the trajectory of a girl's life, and that of her entire community," Cherie Hoeger and Amber Fawson, co-founders of menstrual cup company Saalt, tell mbg in an email. "We're passionate about the power one menstrual cup has to afford a girl the opportunity to finish school, provide for her family, and break the cycle of poverty for generations."

Saalt commits 2% of their revenue to donating period care products and funding initiatives around education and sustainability. To date, they've donated over 2,500 menstrual cups, funded some 1,800 days of school for girls in rural Nepal, and piloted programs in 10 different countries to introduce the menstrual cup, address barriers to cup use, and create ongoing peer education systems around menstrual health.

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5. Advocate for legislative changes.

Specifically, you can join the push for free menstrual products in schools, homeless shelters, prisons, and public institutions. Toilet paper and soap are considered basic necessities in bathrooms in the U.S. Considering the fact that half the population menstruates, shouldn't menstrual products be available as well?

This is particularly relevant in schools, where having a tampon can mean the difference between being in school or staying home. According to a recently released study by period company Thinx, one in five teens in the U.S. have struggled to afford period products or haven't been able to purchase them at all. What's more, 84% have missed class time or know someone else who has because they didn't have access to period products.

Incarcerated menstruators also face gruesome circumstances when it comes to their menstruation: A box of tampons can cost as much as a full month's salary in prison, 80% of incarcerated women report using homemade tampons, and the Justice Department has even found instances where some women have been forced to have sex with guards to get access to period products.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, 34 states tax period products as "nonessential goods" while things like Rogaine and Viagra go untaxed. States make an estimated $150 million annually off taxing period products, according to reporting from Period Equity. They and feminine care company LOLA have launched a national campaign of their own to mobilize legal action to end the tampon tax, in which they're also collecting signatures to drum up pressure on policymakers.

"This unjust burden limits access to products that are basic necessities for more than half the population," LOLA co-founder Jordana Kier tells mbg. "We've mobilized a coalition of lawyers to prove that the tampon tax is discriminatory under the law. We will use this argument to make sure every state is Tax Free. Period. by tax day—April 15, 2020. The more people who sign our declaration, the more pressure states will feel."

Changing these unacceptable circumstances requires legislation to require these institutions to provide these basic necessities. What can you do from home? Sign PERIOD's national petition for free menstrual care products and Period Equity's petition for tax-free periods. Call up your representatives or send them an email. Make a ruckus to demand new laws. (You can name-drop the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2019 or H.R.1882, which is one of the laws PERIOD supports passing. According to the Thinx report, it would "improve access to period products in schools, incarceration facilities, homeless shelters, businesses, and public federal buildings as well as allow period products to be covered by Medicaid and pretax flexible spending accounts.")

6. Volunteer at charities that educate about menstrual health and equity.

"One way people can support menstrual health initiatives would be to volunteer their time to charities that are dedicated to educating young teens and women on proper hygiene practices targeted toward their period," Crystal Etienne, founder of period underwear company Ruby Love, tells mbg. "This will not only give hands-on experience but will also allow the opportunity to understand firsthand the struggles some women face every month during their menstrual cycle."

The Red Dot Campaign is often looking for spaces to host menstrual health awareness events and period product collections, PERIOD and I Support the Girls needs volunteers for their drives and other behind-the-scenes work, or you can start a local chapter of PERIOD in your community or at your school.

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7. Talk openly about periods. 

Importantly, more products alone will not end period poverty. Research shows part of the problem is the ongoing stigma around menstruation that still persists in many cultures, which makes many young menstruating people prefer to miss class or opt for an unhygienic solution over having others discover they're menstruating. 

"Silence and misinformation about menstruation—a completely normal, healthy bodily function—lead to stigma," Lucinda Holt, M.S., a sex educator and director at national sex-ed organization Answer, tells mbg. "We know that stigma means that we don't talk about menstruation. When we don't talk openly and honestly about menstruation, young people don't get the information they deserve. And we don't address the fact that many women and girls can't afford menstrual products and end up missing school or work as a result."

Part of this involves better sex education for young people around the world. But we can also all start to change the conversation around periods in our own lives and social circles by talking about menstruation openly and as a normal, healthy part of our lives rather than as something embarrassing that we need to hide from others. 

"We all need to recognize that culture is doing us a disservice by telling us to keep it hush-hush. We need just as much community around our period as any other area of our life," Hoeger and Fawson tell mbg. "A sixth-grader who needs a pad in the middle of the day should not feel shame but should feel confident taking action to care for her period. The more comfortable and positive you are (or pretend to be) about your period, the easier it is for others to also talk productively about theirs. This period-positive outlook allows people to ask questions and seek medical help when they need it."

Period poverty is solvable, and we can all play our part in supporting menstrual health for all.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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