By Isabelle Christie, Special Contributor to Maine Family Planning
Nearly a billion people around the world might be menstruating on any given day. (The World Bank, 2020.) Still, despite its prevalence and normalcy, menstruation remains a taboo subject few are willing to acknowledge or discuss. Consequently, menstruators receive little support from our social systems, which costs students their education and workers their productivity, and adds to the cost of living for millions of low-income and impoverished individuals.
This reality underscores the need for menstrual equity, an issue around which a global movement has recently formed. Simply put, menstrual equity means safe and affordable access to menstrual hygiene tools (e.g. pads, tampons, cups) for all.
UNDERSTANDING MENSTRUAL EQUITY
In the United States, low-income and houseless menstruators often struggle with what is known as “period poverty,” or the inability to afford sufficient menstrual products. While there are few studies exploring the relationship between menstruation and poverty, one 2019 study of low-income women in St. Louis confirmed that two-thirds of participants were “unable to afford needed menstrual hygiene supplies during the previous year,” with one fifth experiencing this monthly.
According to Census Bureau data from 2019, 11.8 percent of women in Maine aged 18 to 64 lived in poverty, a number that has likely risen due to the pandemic.
“Anywhere that poverty is an issue, period poverty is also an issue,” House Rep. Denise Tepler (D–Tospham), who has sponsored several bills related to menstrual equity, says. “Maine food banks have indicated that period products are one of their most requested items.”
Given the high costs associated with menstruating, it is no surprise that menstrual products are often out of reach for low-income and homeless populations. A year’s supply of tampons and pads, which are not covered by SNAP or Medicaid, cost around $70 to $120. This totals to more than $4,000 over one’s lifetime, and does not include the costs of painkillers, heating pads, ruined underwear, and more (Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Periods Gone Public, 2017). For those menstruators with children who also menstruate, these costs may double or even triple.
The inability to manage one’s period has severe consequences for menstruators. For one, those who struggle with period poverty are less likely to participate in public life when they are menstruating. They may miss a job interview or call out of work each month, which forces them to use sick days or deplete their wages, and threatens their employment altogether. Still, menstruators have few alternatives to staying home; workplaces do not typically offer free period products to employees.
Period poverty also stymies opportunities for poor, menstruating adolescents. A 2019 survey reports that one in five teens in the U.S. have struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all. Without adequate resources to manage their periods, young menstruators may find it difficult to focus in school, as they worry about where their next tampon is coming from. And while nurse’s offices usually supply emergency products, students must feel confident enough to ask to visit the nurse, as they may have to respond to questions from their teacher or peers about their reason for doing so. Moreover, in visiting the nurse, students lose class time, especially if there is a long wait. For these reasons, some teens might not attend school at all while menstruating. The same survey reports that one in four teens have missed class because of a lack of access to period products.
“The lack of availability in school restrooms of menstrual products is creating an education inequity for menstruators who live in poverty or unstable housing conditions,” Tepler says.
Beyond participation in the public sphere, period poverty poses serious health risks for menstruators. Many will resort to paper towels, toilet paper, and used pads in lieu of clean products. A highly-circulated video from Bustle highlights the unique ways in which homeless menstruators deal with their periods, from using cotton balls to plastic bags to cardboard –– anything that absorbs blood. These makeshift solutions increase menstruators’ risk of toxic shock syndrome and other urogenital infections and can lead to skin irritation, vaginal discomfort, and more.
In recent years, some state and local governments have acknowledged the consequences of menstrual inequity and begun to address the issue through legislative reform. In July, Maine officially joined 17 other states in eliminating the “tampon tax,” or sales tax on menstrual products, when Gov. Janet Mills signed the biennial budget, which included the tax exemption, into law. A previous bill (LD 286) abolishing the tax passed in the House and Senate in 2019 but never received funding.
In eliminating the tax on menstrual products (5.5 percent), Maine relieves a small financial burden for menstruators. More significantly, this move challenges structural gender discrimination. Prior to the law’s enactment, menstrual products were not classified as “necessities” like grocery staples or prescribed medicine from doctors, which are tax exempt. In other words, while products like Viagra were deemed essential, menstrual products were treated as luxury items. People were penalized simply for having uteruses.
The removal of the sales tax, however, recognizes that menstruation is a natural biological function for more than half the state’s population and moves us toward a model of greater gender parity. Moreover, considering menstrual products as necessities will help pave their way for coverage in other areas.
To more directly address the needs of low-income menstruating students, Tepler introduced LD 452 this winter, which proposes that schools serving students grades 6-12 make menstrual products freely available in their bathrooms. The bill made it to the special appropriations table and will be carried over to the next legislative session in January to determine whether it will receive funding.
While many schools already cover the costs of emergency pads and tampons kept in the nurse’s office, additional products could be acquired through donations. A new law enacted in June protects those who donate menstrual products to charitable organizations from liability, as well as those organizations that distribute products to schools, public facilities, etc. Non-profits, hospitals, and other good faith donors could help fill school bathrooms without risk.
Looking Forward: What Can You Do?
Even with the progress Maine and other states have made, there is still much work to be done in order to achieve menstrual equity. Here are a few ways you can help ensure that menstruators in Maine have access to the period products they need:
- Affect policy: Call your local legislators about menstrual equity bills like LD 452. Write letters to the editor. Get in touch with your school board or town council about supplying menstrual products in school bathrooms.
- Be charitable: Host a product drive in your school or workplace and donate those products to homeless shelters, food pantries, or menstrual equity organizations in Maine (e.g. One Less Worry, I Support the Girls). Consider making a monetary contribution to a menstrual equity organization.
- Volunteer: Participate in menstrual product packing “parties” following a donation drive. Volunteer with One Less Worry. Contact Maine Family Planning, Planned Parenthood, or other sexual and reproductive health care providers for volunteer opportunities surrounding menstrual equity.
- Educate yourself and others: Check out books like Periods Gone Public, Period Power, or Period. End of Sentence. Share your knowledge with others through conversations, social media, etc.
- Talk about menstruation: Stigma drives period poverty, as menstruators are often embarrassed to ask for assistance and lawmakers deterred from discussing such a taboo subject. To reverse the stigma, we must start talking about our periods openly –– with family, friends, co-workers. Share your menstrual stories. Avoid euphemisms and hushed tones when talking about periods. If your child or younger sibling asks about tampons or pads in the bathroom cupboard, explain to them what they are.
Menstrual management should be recognized as a right, not a privilege for those who can afford products –– everyone deserves to feel clean, capable, and dignified while menstruating. It’s time to treat tampons and pads as the necessities they are, and menstruation as a normal, bodily process. In doing so, we can advance educational and gender equity in Maine and create an environment in which menstruators, too, can thrive.