How period poverty illuminates women’s silent struggle

Photo credit: Kali Ryder

Period poverty is a universal global health issue. Highly stigmatized and rarely discussed, this issue is perpetual, especially for low-income women and girls. It can negatively impact their ability to participate in school, work and extracurricular activities like sports or clubs.

Period poverty describes the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities and waste management. A U.S. survey found that the average woman spends $13.25 a month on menstrual products — that’s $6,360 in an average woman’s reproductive lifetime. Because of the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies, many women and girls are left vulnerable.

While the term “poverty” usually brings financial constraint to mind, other factors like cultural and environmental barriers also contribute to a lack of resources. Basic necessities, like access to a private bathroom or the ability to ask questions or confide in someone, are crucial for girls starting their menstrual cycle. They aren’t born knowing how to insert a tampon or properly wash a stained pair of underwear, they have to be taught.

Unfortunately, period poverty has a strong stigma attached to it. The perception that menstruation is gross or dirty is not based in fact. Periods are the result of the monthly shedding of the uterine lining — a completely natural cycle in female anatomy. Nevertheless, periods are still viewed as a taboo topic. Sinja Stadelmeier, the co-founder of The Female Company, a startup that delivers organic period products, shared her insights in the blog, “Your Period Called.”

“Five years back, nobody talked about periods and it was nothing you discuss, even with friends, but instead a topic you whisper about behind closed doors,” Stadelmeier said.

Fighting period poverty would not only mean making menstrual products more affordable, but also spreading awareness that periods are not something to be ashamed of.

The taboo around periods contributes to period poverty’s negative effects on women, especially when it comes to their social lives and mental health. Especially at the onset of puberty, many girls experience loneliness and shame in regards to their period. They may be shunned by their peers, teased or made to feel dirty. They may suffer with low self-esteem and buy into the false narrative that their bodies are innately unclean.

In many instances, women and girls without access to period products are forced to miss school during the week of their period, missing anywhere from 10-20% of school days. When girls are absent from school, they fall behind in their studies and have to work extra hard to catch up. In some cases, this can ultimately lead to girls dropping out. Worldwide, girls are less likely to graduate from secondary school as 131 million girls are out of school and 100 million of those girls are of high school age.

These unsettling effects of period poverty go past the onset of puberty and can affect women in the workplace. Missing work hinders women from getting a high-paying job, receiving promotions and even keeping their jobs. According to an article published in the Journal of Global Health Reports, 16.9 million people who menstruate in the U.S. are living in poverty. Women and girls miss opportunities and the joys of daily life because they do not have access or enough financial stability to purchase menstrual and hygienic products.

“Women who usually don’t have access to menstrual or hygienic products are often stuck with using rags, paper towels, reused pads or socks,” Miami gynecologist Dr. Michelle Starke said.

Because of this, women are subject to getting infections — specifically, urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis. These diseases need to be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor, which can be very costly and time-consuming. With proper access to menstrual and hygienic products, diseases and doctor’s visits could be entirely preventable, so women won’t have to struggle to keep themselves healthy.

Another factor that contributes to period poverty, are the taxes placed on women’s products. As of June 2019, 35 states in the U.S. taxed menstrual products at rates between 4.7%, in Hawaii and 9.9%, in Louisiana. The pink tax or the gender-based price disparity that taxes feminine products, is another barrier to accessing personal hygiene products. In a government study, they reported that products targeted to women were 13% more expensive than similar men’s products. Countries such as Australia, Canada, India and Rwanda have removed taxes on tampons and other feminine products. Currently, the Pink Tax Repeal Act is pending in the U.S. Congress.

Ashley Eubanks, the founder of The Beauty Initiative, an organization that helps spread awareness about period poverty and women empowerment, believes all women deserve access to period products.

“I was driving home from work and I noticed a homeless woman panhandling and I noticed her pants were soiled with blood,” Eubanks said. After this encounter, Eubanks started the Beauty Initiative. On Eubank’s 30th birthday, she threw a hygiene party where she and her friends in the local community collected over 15,000 pads, tampons, toilet paper, deodorant and hairbrushes and packed them into hygiene kits.

Eubanks, along with Florida Senator Lauren Book, proposed and wrote the “Learning with Dignity Act” which was signed into law in 2019. This legislation involved tampons and sanitary pads being freely available in Florida schools. This act has seen successful implementation into Florida’s school systems, as girls are able to access pads and tampons at the nurse’s office and other facilities.

In November 2022, UM commuter senator Katrina Hernandez started an initiative on campus. She implemented a QR code system for students to scan so that they can notify maintenance to restock on menstrual products in campus bathrooms.

UM students can help spread awareness about period poverty by joining the PERIOD club on campus. The PERIOD club’s mission is to work towards fighting period poverty through “service, education and advocacy.”

“A period should end a sentence. It should not end education,” Eubanks said.

Samantha Weissman is a freshman majoring in political science and minoring in dance, sociology and psychology.