By Amanda Bule, SIECUS Intern
Periods are a pain for most people; cramps, bloating, mood swings and the undue burden of period product cost. It’s enough to drive anyone to their wits end. The cost of menstrual products can become an unnecessary burden for many. Commonly referred to as “period poverty”, this widespread struggle includes “a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these. It affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide.” A survey of 183 low-income women in the United States found that two thirds of them struggled to afford menstrual products over the course of a year.
Women aren’t the only population impacted by this burden. Transgender men, gender non-conforming individuals, and non-binary folks are at risk of facing discrimination, harassment, and gender dysphoria when attempting to obtain menstrual products.
SIECUS spoke with Lynette Medley, founder and CEO of No More Secrets MBS, and Shreya Singh Hernandez, founder of Periods for the People, formerly The Menses Project, about period poverty.
While the pain of period poverty is widespread globally, this issue is extremely prevalent throughout the United States.
Lynette Medley explains that many people wh
o experience period poverty do not deal with poverty in other aspects of their lives. This misperception can make it difficult for folks to seek help from organizations aimed at ending period poverty due to the stigma associated with the term “poverty”. Instead, Medley prefers the term menstrual insecurities to describe lack of access to essential care, although she still uses the phrase period poverty to bring awareness to the issue in the United States.
“That’s not just something that’s happening internationally; it’s happening in our own backyard. And it is poverty related to period products, you know. I might not be in complete poverty like some people, but related to these menstrual products, yeah, I’m in poverty.” -Lynette Medley
One individual who received assistance from No More Secrets MBS illustrates this distinction. Marcea, a mother to a 9-year-old daughter, contracted COVID-19 after being in the hospital for a triple bypass surgery. Her daughter ended up experiencing her first period during this already difficult time. Marcea struggled to find menstrual products for her daughter before finding No More Secrets, MBS. She’s one of many individuals impacted by the remarkable work of Medley and her team.
Hernandez and Medley are behind incredible community-level work. By operating at the local level, they are changing individual lives.
When distributing period products, it is important to consider individual experiences and community values. Hernandez explains the importance of providing sustainable options to people, while considering what sustainability means in different contexts.
“When doing this work, I always want to bring a sense of cultural competency and awareness because a lot of times Indigenous practices or more rural practices can often be more sustainable. Especially as an American, I never want to impose a Western ideal of what sustainability is onto communities.” -Shreya Singh Hernandez
The fight against period poverty needs to include a bottom-up and top-down approach. Hernandez and Medley offered suggestions for how to make a difference nationwide.
One often discussed solution is to add period products to federal assistance programs such as the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hernandez shared how Periods for the People has combined food and period product distribution, emphasizing that both products are necessities.
Another option is removing sales tax on menstrual products. This solution would make period products more accessible for some folks where monetary obstacles keep them from obtaining proper menstrual care. Medley warns however that removing the tax on menstrual products is more of a menstrual equity issue rather than a period poverty issue.
“The people who we service, the tax isn’t going to make a difference. If it has the extra two dollars or if it doesn’t, it’s not going to make a difference.” -Lynette Medley
Hernandez and Medley also both support free menstrual products in schools, community centers, libraries, shelters, and detention centers.
Sex education reform is an additional way to impart widespread change. People need to have the tools to make informed decisions that make sense in the context of their lives.
Education is essential to ensure everyone, including people who don’t menstruate, understands the menstrual cycle. Sex education curriculum must stop separating by gender to discuss menstruation, which enforces the binary and sends the message to young people that periods are something to be discussed in secret.
“We need to create a comprehensive sex ed curriculum, educational series, for all young people. (…) And I think everybody should be together when we have these conversations. I think that’s why there’s such a stigmatized ideology or thought process around the menstrual cycle. Every time we’re talking about it we take 50% of the population and make them leave the room.” -Lynette Medley
Comprehensive sex education must also include information about period irregularities. Insufficient education around menstrual pain can lead severe symptoms to go untreated, potentially delaying diagnosis of serious conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.
“I think it’s just assumed that periods are painful, and they’re just going to be an uncomfortable part of your life, and you just have to bear it and go through it because that’s what all menstruators do, and that’s actually not the case. As people are starting to open up a little bit more, we’re starting to realize that some of these issues that people are experiencing are different. They actually need actual care, actual healthcare to address them.” -Shreya Singh Hernandez
Ending period poverty must be a group effort. Everyone has the potential to make an impact, whether that be through donation, advocacy efforts, or volunteering.
“This is a socially constructed injustice that’s impacting these communities. It can be solved.” -Lynette Medley
“It should be seen as a human right for people to have their periods in dignity.” -Shreya Singh Hernandez
Periods for the People is in need of donations as well as volunteers. Their volunteer texting program connects menstruators with volunteers in an effort to provide support.
“Our peer texting program hopes to follow up with recipients of our free menstrual cups to answer any questions. We see that if someone can make it past the second cycle of using reusable products, it is highly likely to become their preferred product- saving them hundreds to thousands over years on their budgets by drastically reducing the number of period products they use to have comfortable and dependable period care.” -Shreya Singh Hernandez
No More Secrets Mind Body Spirit Inc. accepts financial donations as well as donated menstrual products and supplies. For additional organizations to support, check out the link below.
SIECUS is committed to ending the stigma surrounding this natural part of life.