- Menstrual poverty is the inability to access menstrual supplies like sanitary napkins, tampons, and menstrual cups.
- A number of factors during the pandemic have led to an increase in period poverty, including loss of income and the closure of schools and public toilets.
- Proponents say the legislation can play an important role in ensuring those in need can access period products.
When COVID-19 first hit the United States in early 2020, items like toilet paper quickly became a scarce commodity. This made Marni Sommer, a public health doctor and menstruation researcher, curious if the same thing was happening with menstrual supplies.
“I saw the run on toilet paper and I thought, ‘Well, what about menstrual products?’ and I noticed people were catching them as well,” she said. “Most of us were staying home at the time and wondering what it meant for people with maybe less privacy living in constrained environments to be able to manage their periods with dignity.”
Sommer and his colleagues at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health set out to quantify the impact of the pandemic on people who menstruate.
In partnership with the CUNY School of Public Health, they recently published a study which found that loss of income during COVID-19 has led to a significant increase in the number of people unable to access menstrual supplies in the United States. The results were published in the American Journal of Public Health.
The study is part of a growing effort to shed light on menstrual poverty, or the inability to access menstrual supplies like sanitary napkins, tampons and menstrual cups, both globally and in states. -United.
The World Bank estimates that menstrual poverty affects 500 million people worldwide.
Although data is lacking in the United States, a study published in 2019 found that two-thirds of low-income American women could not afford to have menstrual products in the past year. A fifth of the participants experienced it every month.
“When we talk about vulnerable populations, we openly talk about housing insecurity and food insecurity, but we don’t talk about menstrual products,” Sommer said. “We have very little data on how people manage their periods and what people need around these issues.”
For the new study, Sommers and her colleagues collected information on nearly 1,500 people who menstruate from March to October 2020.
Half of participants reported economic loss during the pandemic.
The study authors reported that the likelihood of not being able to afford menstrual products for those who experienced a loss of income was 3.6 times greater than for those who experienced no loss of income.
Not surprisingly, low-income participants were almost 4 times more likely to experience a period of poverty than high-income participants.
“Our main finding was that any type of income loss associated with the onset of the pandemic, whether it was the person themselves or the person who brought income to the household, was a strong predictor of the ‘menstrual product insecurity,’ Sommer said.
In addition to loss of income, the inability to leave home due to underlying health conditions, transportation issues, and lack of internet access or credit to purchase menstrual supplies online has also contributed to menstrual poverty, the researchers reported.
The closures of many public services also played a major role.
“Pantries, public areas, public restrooms, libraries, these are some of the common areas where people could normally go and access period supplies, but they no longer had access to them,” said said Jennifer Gaines, director of the Alliance for Vintage Supplies Program.
Angie Wiseman, executive director of Dignity Period, a nonprofit organization that distributes period supply kits to middle and high schools across the United States, said school closures during the pandemic have had a huge impact on access to menstrual supplies among young people.
“Many students rely on school ‘community closets’ or backpack programs for supplies,” she said. “Similarly, many teachers and nursing offices offer sanitary pads for those who need them. However, when schools were closed, there was no way to access supplies.
Research by U by Kotex, the founding sponsor of the Alliance for Period Supplies program, also revealed a significant increase in menstrual poverty during the pandemic.
The study published in May 2021 found that 2 in 5 people struggled to buy menstrual products, a 35% increase from the brand’s original searches in 2018.
Research has also shown that black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected.
Not having access to adequate period supplies can have a number of negative effects on a person’s life.
“Overall, lack of access to menstrual products has prevented menstruating girls and women from going to school or being able to go to work due to the shame and stigma surrounding their cycles and the anxiety surrounding bleeding,” said Dr. Tara Shirazian, gynecologist at NYU Langone. Health and founder of Saving Mothers, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing health disparities and empowering women and girls. “This anxiety can have lasting consequences on education and even employment opportunities.”
When she teaches classes on menstruation and global health at Columbia University, Sommer asks her students what decisions they would make if they didn’t have access to menstrual supplies or toilets.
“[I’ll ask] ‘How many of you would have taken the subway or taken a bus or driven here today and would be willing to sit in class or in a meeting all day and do those quick errands on the way home if you don’t ‘have no products or do you have no place to change?’, she said. “I think it fundamentally changes your ability to go about your day-to-day business.”
The cost of menstrual supplies each month also means that many people on limited incomes have to choose between basic necessities like groceries and menstrual products.
“If you live in a household and have children to feed, as a mother myself, I will choose food rather than a product that I need for myself,” Gaines said.
In households where more than one person menstruates, adults often provide menstrual products to their children and forgo obtaining them.
Members of the transgender community also face unique barriers.
“Even though period products are available in [school or public] bathrooms, they might just be available in the bathroom identified by women, which doesn’t help provide products for everyone,” Gaines said.
When menstrual supplies are scarce, many have to resort to makeshift items to manage their blood flow, such as rags, old clothes and rolled up pieces of toilet paper, paper towels or tissues. These items are less than ideal and can lead to clothing leaking, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and embarrassment.
Advocates say the first step to addressing period poverty is raising awareness of its existence in the United States and around the world.
“It’s about sensitizing your local communities, your colleagues, your friends, your local elected officials, and educating them about what period poverty is, what the different aspects are and how people are affected,” he said. said Gaines.
The Alliance for Period Supplies has created an annual period poverty awareness week in May to educate and raise awareness about the problem and its impact on people who menstruate in the most vulnerable populations.
After raising awareness, a major area of interest is legislation.
“Once we continue to educate lawmakers and elected officials, we can start making more progress in passing more menstrual fairness bills,” Gaines said. “That means passing bills that offer free menstrual products in schools so students don’t have to worry about where they get their products. This means passing bills that provide period products in prisons and correctional systems, because that is also a huge problem.
Menstrual products are not included in most US public assistance programs. They cannot be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act of 2020 allowed certain segments of the population to use health savings accounts and repayment terms for menstrual products.
However, this represents only limited progress, Sommer said.
“I think the government has a role to play in making sure menstrual products are seen as essential items so that when you go to a food bank or service organization or get some sort of credit to buy necessities, subsidized or free, menstrual products are recognized for what they are as essential items,” she said.
Recognizing period supplies as essential items, like food and medicine, would also mean they would not be taxed. Currently, vintage products are still subject to state sales tax in 27 states. After a nationwide campaign launched in 2015, many states introduced measures to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax”.
Groups like Period Equity are working to make menstrual products tax-free in all 50 states.
If you’re having trouble getting supplies for your period, there are resources that can help.
People in need of menstrual products can contact 211 by visiting 211.org or calling 2-1-1 for local assistance.
Gaines also recommends contacting local social service providers, such as churches, shelters and food pantries.
The Alliance for Period Supplies lists nonprofit community organizations that collect, store, and distribute menstrual supplies in local communities across the United States.