Period Poverty: Raising Awareness About An Overlooked Global Issue

4 min
Feminine hygiene products in a Walmart. (Wikimedia Commons/Stilfehler)

The following story was produced for Youth Takeover week at KQED.

Genevieve Schweitzer is a 10th-grader at El Cerrito High School.

When I was a young girl, I started donating general hygiene products to a women’s shelter in Berkeley. I would drop off things like soap, lotion and toothbrushes. But it never really crossed my mind that women in shelters might be in need of menstrual products too.

That changed when I started a feminist club with my friend at our high school. As I began to spend more time learning about relevant feminist issues, I found out about the real but rarely addressed issue of period poverty, in which poor women lack access to menstrual products.

A recent survey conducted by St. Louis University found that nearly two-thirds of low-income women in that city over the last year couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene products like tampons or pads. Respondents said they instead sometimes resorted to using cloth, rags, tissues, toilet paper and sometimes even diapers or paper towels from public bathrooms. Nearly half the women in the survey also said that there were times in the past year when they couldn’t afford both food and period products.

“I do know of women who have talked about using toilet tissue paper or paper towels,” said Wanda Johnson, a nurse practitioner at Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless. “One woman, she was telling me that she had a sock and she wrapped the paper towel around the sock because that was the best way to wick it away."

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Nadya Okamoto, a Harvard University student on leave, started the organization PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement when she was 16 to raise greater awareness about this issue.

“People don't talk about it and it's not really something that people know about or think about beyond their own experiences with it,” she said.

Women feel ashamed asking for products because of this unspoken rule that they shouldn’t talk about their periods with other people, Okamoto explained.

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“A big barrier, too, is that food stamps don't cover period products as necessities,” Okamoto said. “So a lot of the time it makes it even less affordable for people who really can't afford those necessities.”

Period products are currently taxed in 35 states in the country, including California, which makes them even less affordable for people with limited incomes. Meanwhile, items that are considered basic necessities, like most food products and sunscreen, are often tax exempt.

Wanda Johnson’s experience has taught her that the medical field doesn’t adequately address the issue of menstrual hygiene, but notes that she’s noticed some positive changes.

“We offer hygiene kits,” she said, adding that she has seen a growing number of shelters starting to offer period products to women in need, including one that recently placed a basket of products in its bathroom.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of states are considering abolishing taxes on menstrual products, including California, where a bill to repeal the tax is being taken up in the state Legislature. Most recently, Nevada voters in 2018 approved scrapping the “tampon tax,” making it the 10th state in the country to do so (five other states don’t have any sales taxes). And a growing list of countries around the world, including Canada, India, Kenya and Ireland, have eliminated these taxes altogether.

These developments are a sure sign that women are making their voices heard and driving home the message that period poverty is a human rights issue. Period.

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Genevieve Schweizer is a 10th-grader at El Cerrito High School.

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