Illustration by Jeannie Phan, originally published on www.broadview.org.
Having to use cloth towels, rolled-up toilet paper, and cheaper, lower quality period products that are uncomfortable is a reality for many people who menstruate. Lack of access to period products is not just a developing nation problem; this exists in U.S. communities as well. Period poverty is all around us. In a survey done last year by the Obstetrics & Gynecology Journal, nearly two-thirds of low-income women surveyed struggled to afford period products at some point during the previous year. Not everyone menstruates, and although some people cannot relate to having a period, it is the reason human life exists. More people than some realize struggle to afford period products when their period arrives. In some U.S. states, period products are taxed as a luxury, despite menstruating being something people don’t have a choice to do.
Elizabeth Skill, 23, Los Angeles, was a 16-year-old high school student when her mother stopped paying for the menstrual products she used monthly.
“When I started college, that’s when I couldn’t afford period products as much as I could before because my mom stopped buying them for me,” Skill said. “Paying for school and then having period products to pay for next, I literally couldn’t afford it, and I’d catch myself literally wrapping up toilet paper in the bathroom - it would just be an inconvenience, especially on campus because if I didn’t have money that day they didn’t have tampons or stuff at my school.”
Skill had to occasionally save her change in order to buy period products. Even then, she struggled to afford the specific kinds of products for her individual needs.
“It has to be a thick, heavy product and they aren’t cheap. You have to get a good amount of products,” Skill said. “I would just get small rags sometimes, and I would roll up a rag because it was the only thing that would help. I couldn’t afford anything good, so I’d use a cheap product, and it [the blood] would just go right through.”
According to a study done by PERIOD, a non-profit organization that provides free period products to those who need them, and Thinx, period underwear company, one in five U.S. teenagers have struggled to afford period products at some point, or have not been able to afford them at all.
PERIOD seeks to help people like Skill who are struggling with their ability to afford period products.
PERIOD also provides education related to menstruation in order to end the stigma about periods. The global non-profit organization was founded in 2014 by then high school student Nadya Okamoto and classmate Vincent Forand in Portland, Oregon. They originally formed the organization to address the immediate needs of unhoused people who menstruate in the Portland area. This youth-led initiative led them to begin a network of period chapters in high schools around the Portland region, which now has spread to over 1,000 chapters registered globally.
According to PERIOD’s Executive Director Michela Bedard, PERIOD Chapters in Portland were instrumental in getting Portland public schools to provide period products in school buildings, while other chapters have testified in front of their state legislatures in support of a repeal of a state sales tax on menstrual supplies.
“The PERIOD chapter at Ohio State University testified in front of their state legislature in opposition to the tampon tax, as did the PERIOD Michigan State chapter in front of their state legislature (PERIOD Michigan State chapter has since disbanded). Other chapters such as PERIOD PittPublicHealth and PERIOD Abington Heights have testified in Pennsylvania. PERIOD Washington State University has testified in Washington State, PERIOD Boca Raton in Florida, and PERIOD Connecticut have all testified in support of access to free period products in schools,” Bedard said.
The period chapters work to provide supplies to people who menstruate in their communities, advocate for local menstrual equity policies, and to destigmatize periods. Some chapters focus exclusively on raising funds to purchase and distribute supplies to those most in need, while others focus on educational programs about menstruation in their schools or community groups. Some chapters focus solely on advocacy, helping to push policies that address period poverty in their school districts, cities, counties and states.
“We believe that people are the experts about their own communities, and our PERIOD chapters help lead the way to eradicate period poverty where they work, go to school and live. PERIOD Chapters are self-run and self-organized. PERIOD helps to provide chapters with resources, toolkits and support to enact their own agendas. PERIOD also supplies chapters with period products when possible, and chapters are welcome to apply for microgrants of up to $1,000 for work in their communities,” Bedard said.
Programs like these would have helped Elizabeth Skill. She would often purchase period products at the Dollar Tree because they were more affordable there. However, due to the lower quality product, it would give her painful rashes on her skin. Not being able to afford a basic need for herself led to frustration. Although both men and women use condoms, Skill finds it upsetting that only sexual health products are being handed out at her school.
“It pissed me off, especially knowing men are getting handed out condoms like fucking candy on the school campus, men can get whatever they want for sex, but what about me who doesn’t get the choice,” Skill said. “Every time I get my period, I fucking cry because one, it’s emotional, and two, I have to go spend an unnecessary amount of money on all these products: Midol, tampons, pads, it’s so irritating seeing the men get whatever they want for free passed out and we [people who menstruate] still don’t get stuff that are necessities.”
In addition to the chapters, PERIOD is responsible for donating over five million period products in 2020 alone, according to their website. These products are donated to hundreds of service partners (organizations who provide direct service to individuals, and receive period products from PERIOD) around the U.S. primarily, and some international organizations. They typically receive 100,000 - 200,000 pieces of period products through donations each month, about half of what they distribute. PERIOD purchases the remaining products with financial donations from donors and partners.
“We rely on the generosity of incredible donors, [and] we have donations from individuals. We also receive donations from foundations and from corporate giving. We have one large fundraiser a year, called State of The Period, but more than that, it’s the day-to-day generosity of people who understand this issue as a crucial issue and donate to us at PERIOD.org. Some of these donors include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Thinx, Adidas, Myovant Sciences, and Flamingo.
At this year’s virtual annual fundraiser, State of The Period, PERIOD’s staff of 12 people (half are part-time college students) raised over $100,000. PERIOD buys period products in bulk and funds their warehouse fulfillment center and the trucking logistics that ensure these products get to those who need them worldwide. PERIOD is able to fund the shipping and distribution of these products with the help of these bulk donations.
Bedard also measures the organization’s impact by the success and participation of their youth-led chapters in fighting against period poverty.
“Sometimes that means helping them coalition build and organize. Sometimes it means providing policy training, providing cash resources so that they can get together and do this, sometimes it means actually providing products for them,” Bedard said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, requests for period products increased greatly at PERIOD. In the first quarter of 2020, PERIOD distributed 43,000 tampons. After March, when people were impacted by COVID-19, they distributed over 1.2 million tampons.
However, providing free period products to those who cannot afford them is a temporary solution to a complex, intersectional problem, especially when you mainly rely on donations to provide these products.
“Providing donated supplies is only sustainable as long as there are donated supplies. It’s not sustainable, that is not a way to run a community,” Bedard said. “This is a systemic problem that needs to be fixed by lawmakers, community leaders, and men and women who are willing to stand up and say ‘we are not going to let stigma keep us from talking about this.’”
A major limitation of providing free period products is that there will always be a demand for them, and it is near impossible to keep up with that demand without a systemic change. People who menstruate need period products for as long as they are menstruating, which on average is for about 40 years of one’s life.
“The demand is almost limitless. Every day we turn down orders for people [nonprofits and community groups] who need pallets and pallets of bulk supply because they serve a community that has a deep need. We also get calls often from individuals and families in need, and work to connect them to products as soon as possible,” Bedard said. “That is painful and does not work because periods never stop coming. Even an unlimited flow of disposable period products, even if we were able to get them to everyone in need, it would not stop the problem of period poverty.”
Scotland recently became the first nation to address the need for menstrual products. They passed legislation in mid-November to make all period products free to those who need them. A change in policy addresses Skills concerns about educational institutions providing period products to students who need them.
However, the problem of having a lack of access to period products cannot be fixed by merely providing free products. Since it is a systemic and intersectional issue, there is more that needs to be done in addition to policy changes.
“Providing period [products] is not a sustainable or long-term fix, it is definitely a band-aid on a current major problem. I think it is important that we do the day-to-day work, but we also do the long-term work to solve this,” Bedard said.
Bedard believes PERIOD’s approach is important because they do two things at once; tackles the problem that is limited access to period products by providing free period products to those who need them, and efforts that hope to fix this problem long-term that include advocacy and awareness campaigns to make people more aware of this issue. PERIOD also pushes policymakers to change their policies in an effort to make period products more equitable for all. PERIOD helps equip leaders with the tools they need to make policy change in their communities, including grassroots organizing training, coalition building, testifying, creating and disseminating petitions and sharing research with policymakers to push them to understand the importance of this issue. Bedard says that PERIOD recognizes the work done in this area for decades, and they hope to give a new generation the platform and resources they need to continue pushing for equity for all menstruators.
“And equitable for all means in some places it should be provided for free, in some places, it should simply be less costly, and in others there should be much more access to reusables so that someone living in poverty is not constantly looking to make those purchases every month,” Bedard said.
The reality that not everyone has access to clean water to use these reusable menstrual products is often not realized by some who advocate for their use. This is why Bedard emphasized that lack of access to period products is an intersectional issue that involves economic justice, education justice, housing policy, and sanitation policy. Bedard says that is why PERIOD pushes all areas of policy to ensure this problem is solved.
PERIOD’s reach extends beyond the U.S. The group arranged a donation to Dawrati, the first non-profit organization working to end period poverty in Lebanon, in the wake of the explosion in Beirut in August 2020. Shireen Aboukahlil, 25, San Francisco, works with Cedars Relief, an organization formed in response to the explosion to help provide essential supplies. Both groups worked to organize these supplies to be brought to Beirut during the crisis, and Aboukahlil emphasized that period products were one of the supplies many people needed, even more so during this time.
“Myself and a few friends decided to come together and start this grassroots organization to help get medical supplies and necessities, including period products to Lebanon,” Aboukahlil said. “We started reaching out to a lot of different organizations when someone from PERIOD saw that we were doing this and actually reached out to us.”
An individual on social media noticed that PERIOD wanted to help get supplies to Beirut and connected them with Aboukahlil and Cedars Relief, which were making cargo relief efforts out of California. With the help of Cedars Relief, the Lebanon Relief Project, and the Armenian Relief Society, they were able to get a jet to take supplies to Beirut, PERIOD organized the products to join the shipment and Dawrati was able to connect to this group as well.
The period products were then donated to Dawrati. Aboukahlil said that she and other Lebanese-Americans wanted to send supplies and knew that their biggest role was helping with the logistics.
“The flying, the arriving there, the customs, and the retrieval of the products was our main focus,” Aboukahlil said. “We focus on getting donations, and then we focus on logistics, and then once they land, getting them into the hands of the right people.”
Other than dealing with the aftermath of the explosion, the people of Beirut now have to deal with major inflation in the country, which also affects the cost of period products.
“A pack of period pads in Lebanon was about 35 Lebanese Lira, which is close to 20 dollars,” Aboukahlil said.
“They [PERIOD] were extremely helpful,” Aboukahlil said.“They donated boxes and boxes of period pads, like thousands and thousands of period pads that we were able to fly over to Beirut.”
Skill, who has struggled with this issue and has had to save her sick days at work for period days, believes ending the stigma and starting the conversation around period poverty will help address the problem.
“A potential solution is just having it be talked about more to start, to bring awareness to the issue first, to get everyone on board what’s going on,” Skill said.“We have to get girls comfortable with their bodies and comfortable about talking about periods and then bring men on board too. The stigma needs to get dropped before we can actually take a stance on it and beat the problem. There are still a lot of people that don’t think that [access to] period products are an issue,” Skill said.