A friend recently laughed about the time she was unloading the groceries and absent-mindedly put a box of tampons in the freezer, leading her pre-teen daughter to inquire whether they worked better when cold. We all have our stories – ranging from the funny to the mildly embarrassing to the mortifying – that revolve around menstrual mishaps and messes.
But for the more than 40 million women in this country living in poverty or on the brink of it – and for whom the cost of feminine hygiene products is yet another burden on an already stretched budget – periods are no joke. A year’s supply of tampons and pads costs upwards of $70 and is not covered by food stamps. For homeless women, the problem of lack of access to menstrual hygiene care is often compounded by “minimal access to safe sanitary spaces” like toilets and showers.
Around the globe, managing menstruation can be a debilitating, even deadly, problem – fueled by a combination of poverty, misinformation, stigma and superstition. One in ten girls in Africa misses school for the duration of her period each month. In Bangladesh, infections caused from filthy, contaminated rags are rampant. Menstrual hygiene has been linked to high rates of cervical cancer in India.
Here in the United States, where the economic and opportunity costs of menstruation for poor women have gone relatively undocumented, the problem hides in plain sight. That is, until Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing and columnist for The Guardian, caused a firestorm when she proposed subsidizing sanitary products. She wrote: “Menstrual care is health care, and should be treated as such. But much in the same way insurance coverage or subsidies for birth control are mocked or met with outrage, the idea of women even getting small tax breaks for menstrual products provokes incredulousness … because it has something to do with vaginas. Affordable access to sanitary products is rarely talked about outside of NGOs – and when it is, it’s with shame or derision.”
Conservative talking heads exploded with righteous indignation and a torrent of vitriol jammed the Twittersphere. Free? Women living large off the government? The Washington Examinerlamented, “That, along with cries for free birth control or free whatever just because we’re women stops looking like equality and more like a new class of privilege.”
Marketing expert Nancy Kramer also posed the question, though with a different twist, in her 2013 TED talk and corresponding campaign, Free the Tampons, in which she makes the case that private businesses and public restrooms should provide supplies for women. After all, she points out, complimentary toilet paper and soap are made available. Why not tampons? Kramer has called upon companies and restaurants to take the lead – including her inaugural client (since 1981!), Apple Computer.
Kramer’s TED talk managed to skirt backlash, likely because she didn’t zero in on poor women or government subsidies. It is that raw intersection of poverty and reproduction that touches America’s misogynistic nerve: fear of the welfare queen – having her period, having her birth control, having abortions, having babies – having it all.
The calls for reform that Valenti and Kramer have issued are sensible and much-needed: it is due time that we reconsider the scope of public benefits programs like food stamps – what necessities are excluded and why – and incentivize the private sector to lead by example. And entrepreneurial solutions being forged around the world demonstrate real innovation, especially those that promote replicable business models that empower women and make available safe, affordable feminine hygiene products.
But there is a vital place, too, for creative and compassionate community organizing. Local tampon donation drives are a simple, smart way to bridge the gap. Two teenage sisters in South Orange, N.J., Emma and Quinn Joy, recently launched Girls Helping Girls. Period. to help ensure that women have the products they need, when they need them. “When we learned that women and girls often have to miss work and school because they can’t afford the basic necessities, we were shocked,” said Emma. Added Quinn, “Can you imagine not being able to go to work because you didn’t have enough toilet paper to properly clean yourself?” Similar initiatives include DonatePads.org,The Period Project, Tampon Tuesday and a variety of homegrown projects and partnerships around the country.
The possibilities are endless. Canned food drives, organized regularly by many religious organizations, service groups and schools, could include requests for tampons and pads. Social groups, from book clubs to sororities, could tap their networks to raise awareness and collect supplies. And social media adds a fun factor (think ice bucket challenge): my family is posing a Valentine’s Day challenge via Facebook, asking friends who plan to exchange heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to simultaneously donate a box of tampons. Truly, there’s no simpler way to shine a light on this problem, meet a crucial need for thousands of women and girls … and, for the rest of us, take some of the squeamishness out of addressing menstruation.
One recommendation: that participating collection sites – food pantries, shelters and schools – be presented with fully stocked care packages to give away. That is, donations should do more than offer a one-off emergency fix, but rather provide a long-term supply, several months at least, to empower low-income women to plan ahead and be better equipped to manage this critical aspect of their health.
When it comes to advancing women’s rights and choices, and defining what it means to embrace a proactive reproductive justice agenda, tampon drives are a remarkably easy but infinitely meaningful way to help women take charge, and take care, of their bodies and their lives.