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Menstrual hygiene products are a right, not a privilege

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Should it be a privilege for menstruating women to have access to tampons and pads?

According to the Maine’s Republican state representative, Richard Pickett of Dixfield, incarcerated women should not have comprehensive access to menstrual hygiene products for free. 

{mosads}Dixfield recently voted against a bill allowing state jails and prisons to provide free, unrestricted comprehensive access of tampons, pads and menstrual cups to incarcerated women because, according to a reporter who tweeted his response, “Quite frankly, and I don’t mean this in any disrespect, the jail system and the correctional system was never meant to be a country club.”

Many of these women in correctional facilities are then forced to develop makeshift sanitation products, which can lead to serious health consequences. Menstrual products access and equality should not plague any woman, particularly in a developed country like the United States, incarcerated or not.

Due to the underlying patriarchal views of many of our politicians, this is unfortunately not the case. However, this has resulted in a social and political movement for change.

The menstrual equality movement was inspired by global gender-based discrimination against women who menstruate and coined by Jennifer Weiss Wolf. In her book, “Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand For Menstrual Equity,” Weiss Wolf raises awareness to “period inequity” and her advocacy toward “tampon tax” and how it impacts “period poverty” as well. She has developed an organization to deal with these issues on a national level.

In the United States, as well as other developed nations, a tampon tax ensures that feminine hygiene products are subject to a sales tax in many states. It is a tax not placed on other products that are thought to be of necessity like medications or prosthesis.

The mission of the law and policy organization co-created by Weiss Wolf, Period Equity, is for tax-exempt menstrual products. According to her website, these products “should be affordable and available for all, safe for our bodies and the planet. Periods should not hold anyone back, period.”

Kenya was one of the first countries to eliminate sales tax related to feminine hygiene products, and as of now, 10 states have dropped the “tampon tax” or “pink tax.”

The fight for menstrual equality extends far beyond the criminal justice system and the United States and has never been more prominent.

Recently, the Netflix documentary, “Period. End of Sentence,: received national accolades for best documentary short film at the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Rayka Zehtabchi, the film’s director, was overcome with tears at the Oscars as she documented in her movie the struggle for menstrual equality.

Similar to women who are incarcerated, these women in rural India, were highlighted for manufacturing their own sanitary napkins and providing access in the village. They were able to do this despite the cultural stigma associated with menstruation in many parts of India.

From the Nepalese woman in a rural area who dies from complications of menstrual shaming and the cultural stigma around this — to the poverty-stricken teenager in rural North Carolina who cannot afford menstrual products — the menstrual equity movement is a political and social movement to mitigate the problems that half the population may face,

Whether it is lack of access due to poverty or social conditions or the actual taboo of menstruating women being unclean and impure in certain cultures, many women and girls have medical and social complications that develop.

In May 2018, the United Nations Population Fund reported on the shame, stigma and misinformation associated around menstruation and menstrual hygiene in East and Southern Africa and its consequences to women’s health and human rights violations.

Lack of resources, clean water, menstrual hygiene products and generalized lack of education about menstruation has led to increase in gender discrimination, school absences impacting girls’ education, child marriages (as the onset of menstruation or menarche often triggers marital relations), gender-based violence, and untreated health problems. Women who are infected with HIV have the hardest time with the stigma and are often isolated as a result.

As a practicing OB/GYN, I have worked internationally and locally in underserved areas of the country and have seen the impact of menstrual inequity with my patients. Many of them missed school due to fear of menstruation with lack of access to products. Many of them suffered from menstrual pain, or dysmenorrhea, and felt it was normal and did not discuss with anyone because of the associated taboo.

This can lead to delayed diagnosis for certain conditions like endometriosis (where cells from the lining of your uterus are implanted in other parts of the pelvis leading to chronic pelvic pain); adenomyosis (cells from the lining of the uterus end are implanted in the muscle layers of the uterus); or uterine fibroids (benign tumors of the uterus), which can impact their quality of life, sexual life and future fertility.

With the increasing awareness to topics related to menstrual equality, we hope to see change in sexist laws and socio-cultural reform for all women. Whether they are incarcerated, impoverished or those that are members of a country club but still have associated taboos related to discussing menstrual hygiene, women should be able to endure a natural process like menstruation without worrying about access to products, unfair taxes and associated health and social consequences.

Sameena Rahman M.D. is a practicing OB/GYN and owner of Center for Gynecology and Cosmetics in downtown Chicago. She is a clinical assistant srofessor of OB/GYN at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine and a Public Voices fellow through The OpEd Project.


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