"Period Poverty" and the “Pink Tax” Cause Serious Mental and Physical Health Issues For Women and Girls, but governments are finally stepping in.
It’s happened to every woman at least once in their lives, if not many times: your period comes at a time you’re not expecting it, and you realize you don’t have any sanitary products.
It can be a huge inconvenience, but most of us muddle through. We pop into the pharmacy to buy some. We borrow something from a friend or a coworker. We improvise until we can get home.
But what happens when you’re too poor to afford to buy tampons or pads?
I got my first period on Christmas Eve 1980. The fact that I remember the exact date tells you how traumatic it was.
I had just turned 13 and my mother, who years before had gotten a hysterectomy, didn’t keep period supplies around anymore. She was less than helpful when I came up to her, face red with embarrassment, and whispered my predicament.
“Great, Rose got her period,” she loudly announced to the entire family.
“It’s Christmas Eve, all the stores are closed so I can’t do anything about it. And we don’t have money for maxi pads anyway,” she grumbled, as if I had gotten my period just to inconvenience her.
I muddled through the best I could in those days before you could look things up on the internet. After that first time, I learned to save my babysitting money for supplies so I could take care of things myself.
No young girl should feel like something as natural as getting your period is a financial issue for her family.
Yet for millions of women around the world, getting your period is much more than just an embarrassing annoyance. It’s a severe hardship. This hardship is made worse by the simple fact that it’s expensive to get your period.
The financial impact of having periods
Most women have a span of thirty years between the onset of menstruation and menopause, when menstruation finally stops. This means about 360 periods, or more, throughout the woman’s life.
That’s thirty long years of buying sanitary products and pain medication. Thirty years of planning major events like weddings and vacations based on when your period will arrive. Thirty years of protecting your clothing from embarassing stains. Thirty years of actively managing birth control and tracking your fertility.
On average a woman will spend close to $18,000 managing her periods, not including medical care. Supplies are expensive, and something only fertile women need to worry about. This so-called “pink tax” is prohibitive, especially for women with lower incomes.
If you are not a woman, you might be surprised at how expensive these products are. Tampons and pads generally need to be changed about once every four hours to six hours when a woman is menstruating. Given that your period can last anywhere from three to seven days, that starts to add up.
A box of tampons, panty liners, or sanitary napkins, are generally around $7 per box. The price goes up if you purchase products that are non-toxic.
Conventional sanitary products typically have any combination of BPA, phthalates, bleaching agents, and other ingredients that can be harmful when in close contact with your body. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes that none of the ingredients in sanitary products are harmful, but many disagree.
Spending $7 for a box of tampons might not seem like a lot. But for many low-income people, it is a hardship.
You can’t use food stamps for these products either.
Getting your period when you are homeless
Periods can be particularly vexing for women experiencing homelessness.
Homeless women don’t have a place to store products for when their period arrives. They may carry them around in their bags, but if products get wet, they are ruined. If your bag gets stolen, which often happens when you are homeless, you are out of luck.
Without money to buy expensive products, for a homeless woman their only option is to hope there are sanitary products available when they visit a homeless services provider. Shelters, soup kitchens and homeless meals programs are unlikely to have sanitary products available, and even if they do, you have to ask for them, which can be embarassing.
It can also be difficult for people experiencing homelessness to have access to toilets and showers to clean up and change their sanitary products. In most places in the country, homeless shelters are difficult to get into, and have waiting lists. Even when you have a shelter bed, you generally don’t have storage. Or a lot of privacy. Showers are often only available at certain times, and the shelter may not have washers and dryers available for a homeless woman to clean her clothes.
Being homeless means you are not in control of when and how you manage your period.
Getting your period when you’re in school
Period Poverty and stigma also has a huge impact on teensager girls. When girls first start menstruating, generally between age 12 to 14, there is often a lot of fear and confusion about how to manage it. Younger girls haven’t always learned to tell when it’s coming, leading to unpleasant and embarassing surprises, and it may take a few years before their periods get on a regular cycle, if ever.
Being in school and realizing you have your period can be mortifying. Timing your visits to the bathroom, hiding sanitary in your sleeves, and getting replacements from your locker, can also make it awkward.
Teachers can make this worse. Many girls have also experienced getting their period in class and having a teacher refuse to let them go to the bathroom to take care of it. There are entire Reddit threads devoted to horror stories about teachers, usually male, humiliating a girl who is menstruating.
Going to the nurse's office to ask for a tampon or pad can be equally mortifying.
Even being at home can be hard on a young girl when her parents can’t afford to get her sanitary products. If they can’t get products at school, they might not get them at all.
Fortunately, the tide is turning and we have the increasing influence of female world leaders to thank for this. Many female politicians have noted that it is extremely easy to get free condoms in school, yet in the past it was rare to have similar access to the products needed for menstruation.
In New Zealand, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, period products are now freely available in all schools, no questions asked. The effort is intended to help the estimated 95,000 girls in the country who stay home from school one or more days, because they can’t afford pads or tampons, and are too embarrassed to come to school.
“By making them freely available, we support these young people to continue learning at school,” Ardern said.
A similar measure made sanitary products free in primary and secondary schools in England.
Meanwhile the Scottish Parliament unanimously enacted a measure this past November, that mandates universal access to free period products. This is the most sweeping legislation addressing Period Poverty, in the world.
The bill was introduced by lawmaker Monica Lennon, who said:
“The campaign has been backed by a wide coalition, including trades unions, women’s organizations and charities. Scotland will not be the last country to make period poverty history. Legislation is a world-leading opportunity to secure period dignity for all women, girls and people who menstruate.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, was an enthusiastic supporter of the bill.
Health implications of period poverty
It’s not just about embarrassment, odors, or staining your clothes. Failure to change your tampons and pads every four to six hours — regardless of whether or not they are completely saturated — can lead to a host of health problems, including:
- Urinary tract infections
- Skin irritation
- Fungal infections
- Toxic Shock Syndrome
- Reproductive infections
It's important for women's reproductive health to be able to easily access period products and be able to change them at the appropriate frequency.
How you can help fight Period Poverty
Helping women and girls have easy and free access to period products is essential to self-esteem and health. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Advocate for your state or municipality to enact legislation to offer free products in schools and libraries.
- Write a letter to your state and federal legislators asking them to eliminate sales tax, and other “pink taxes,” that add to the price of these products.
- Donate boxes of pads, tampons and panty liners to your local homeless shelter, domestic violence agency, or family services agency.
- Educate your daughter on period health, and how to strategize for unexpected periods.
If you can’t afford products for you or your daughters, don’t be embarrassed. Visit your local health department or family services agencies and ask for help.
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