Story at a glance
- A new survey found that 1 in 10 college students experience period poverty each month.
- Latina students were most likely to report experiencing period poverty, according to the study.
- Period poverty can hold students back in school as well as affect their mental health.
One in 5 first-generation college students reported experiencing period poverty in the last year, according to a new study released last month — twice the rate of students who aren't the first in their families to attend school. Hispanic or Latina respondents were most likely to report experiencing period poverty both in the past year and on a monthly basis, followed by Black respondents, and then followed by other nonwhite respondents.
“For too long, women have sucked it up,” said Sophia Yen, a medical professional, co-founder and CEO of Pandia Health, an online birth control delivery company. “But this is something that affects 50 percent of the population and menstruation is part of the evidence that we’re able to give life.”
Across the world, period poverty keeps both adults and children who are menstruating out of work and school, even in so-called “developed” countries. Just last November, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for anyone in need. In the United States, more than 4 in 5 teens have either missed class time or know someone who missed class time because they did not have access to period products, according to a Harris Poll.
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“Imagine a wall and that's your foundation of education. I’m going to punch out 10 percent, punch out [another] 10 percent and then I’m going to put pressure on that wall and it’s going to collapse,” said Yen, who has two daughters of her own. “I want everybody with a uterus to have equal opportunities as those without a uterus.”
When they graduate, many students lose what access they did to have to resources, including food, forcing them to choose between their next meal and hygiene products. Many borrowed menstrual products, some reused them and others either used other materials or went without. Yen, however, proposes another solution: seeking to control your period through birth control.
The idea is rife with political controversy, and access to birth control itself can be a barrier. Even for those who do try birth control, side effects can range from inconvenient to debilitating. Yen acknowledges all of this, adding that medical research and practices are racist themselves.
“Most of medicine is based on the 70 kilo white male,” said Yen. “It’s not on the Asian, the Black or the Latina patient.”
Still, she says, menstruation comes with risks of its own, including endometrial, ovarian and colorectal cancer, and can cause other complications, including pain, gastrointestinal complications and psychological stress — not to mention the costs, both financial and environmental, of menstrual products.
An average menstruating American will spend an estimated $1,773.33 over their lifetime on tampons alone, according to a Huffington Post analysis, and the economic burden on women has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Menstrual hygiene products aren’t covered by national food stamp programs and are subject to sales tax in at least 30 states (while some male sanitary products are not). A 2019 survey found that nearly two-thirds of low-income women in a large U.S. city couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene products such as tampons or pads in the previous year, forced to make do with less sanitary options.
Beyond the economic burden, period poverty can have serious consequences on mental health. For those who reported experiencing period poverty every month, 68.1 percent also reported symptoms consistent with moderate or severe depression, according to the study, which linked the trend with similar ties between food insecurity and mental health.
“Wherever there is free toilet paper there should be free sanitary products. It’s a matter of dignity. It is about respecting the womb, it is about respecting anybody with a uterus,” said Yen. “If those without uteri bled once a month, every month, menstrual products would absolutely be free.”
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