Respect Poverty

The solution to ‘period poverty’

a photo of feminine hygiene products

Story at a glance

  • Some 84 percent of U.S. students have missed class time — or knows someone who has — because they didn’t have period products.
  • A survey found 64 percent of women were unable to afford menstrual hygiene products within the previous year.
  • For 21 percent, it was an ongoing problem.
  • Non-profit groups are working to provide free period products to those in need and advocate for removing sales tax on the items.

When I was in high school, I realized that if you ever worried your period wouldn’t come all you had to do was wear white pants to school. You’d instantly turn into a living version of the elevator scene in The Shining, wrap a sweater around your waist and hope your day didn’t turn into Carrie.

It’s one thing to be unprepared, it’s another to be unable to afford necessary tampons or pads, a problem also known as period poverty. The Always Confidence in Puberty Survey found that one in five girls in the U.S. misses classes or just didn’t go to school because they didn’t have the necessary menstrual hygiene products. A recent Harris poll found that 84 percent of students have — or knows someone who has — missed class time due to lack of access to period products.

Even if it was just one class, that means a lecture, in-class activities and teacher feedback were lost for want of simple hygiene products.

Period poverty hits lower income students the hardest, says Anusha Singh, a campaign director for the non-profit company Period: The Menstrual Movement, which distributes menstrual hygiene products to those in need and works to end period poverty and stigma by advocating for free hygiene products in schools, shelters and prisons.

“Sometimes in college or school when you can’t access period products, you are forced to leave class in search for them,” says Singh via email. “Often in school, restrooms were not stocked with period products, and menstruators would have to go to the school nurse for menstrual hygiene products, perpetuating the idea that this is an illness, instead of something that is completely natural.”

Period was founded in 2014 by two 16-year-old high-school students, Nadyka Okamoto and Vincent Forand. In a video bio, Okamoto, who was homeless as a young woman, talks about how one of the toughest problems for homeless women was lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. This discovery evolved into Period, which now has chapters in all 50 states and 30 countries to distribute hygiene supplies to those in need.

“Surprising” need

Women are 38 percent more likely than men to live in poverty, and the number of women in the U.S. who go without these products is high. 

Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, along with her team, published a study on the problem of period poverty earlier this year.

The subject came to Sebert Kuhlman’s attention through her work with Dignity Period, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides menstrual hygiene education and kits to school children in Ethiopia.

“In preparing to help Dignity Period with an evaluation of their program, a student and I conducted a systematic review of the [scientific] literature around menstrual hygiene,” Sebert Kuhlman says. They realized that there were no reports on the state of menstrual hygiene affairs in high-income countries, including the U.S. That lead to a study on period poverty in low-income and homeless women in the United States.

“We expected to find some need, but the extent of the need we documented really surprised us,” she says.

Surveying women from non-profit community organizations, the team found that 64 percent had been unable to afford menstrual hygiene products within the last year, and for 21 percent (almost a quarter of women), it was an ongoing problem. Women used rags, children’s diapers and paper towels from public restrooms as substitutes when they couldn’t afford hygiene equipment.

Nearly half (46 percent) said they couldn’t afford both food and menstrual supplies within the year.

The “pink tax”

Accessibility to menstrual hygiene products is a quandary men don’t face, which brings us to the “pink tax,” the extra money women pay for goods and services — despite the fact that we earn less.

“There are currently 34 states that have a sales tax on menstrual hygiene products,” Singh says.

This means, depending on the state in which you live, cowboy boots, corpse makeup and Bibles are tax exempt while women pay sales taxes on hygiene supplies.

Soon Ohio may be added to the list of states that have axed the tax. Singh, who founded the Period chapter at Ohio State University, says, “Ohio is on the verge of repealing the pink tax. My team and I helped advocate for the repeal of the pink tax bill in Ohio, which just passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and is now about to be signed by the governor.”

In honor of the inaugural National Period Day, October 15, 2019, Singh’s team rallied “hundreds of people at the statehouse.” Presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro, tweeted their support for the issue.

This NBC editorial by Ohio state representative Brigid Kelly (D), and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, co-founder of Period Equity, asks whether this tax is constitutional at the state or federal level.