Periods, Tampons, & Accessibility: Where We Are in 2018

Molly Hayward was 27 years old when she founded Cora, a company best known for their organic, all-natural tampons and the fact that for every box of tampons purchased, a box of pads is given to girls in need. A came to her after a pap smear revealed pre-cancerous cells in her cervix, a common but scary result.

Always one to do her research, Molly grew troubled thinking about how she had no idea what chemicals were in the drugstore tampons she’d been using for years. Further, she realized how pricey and even taboo these products could be for women who are struggling financially or with homelessness, and even young girls overseas for whom their period was shrouded in shame.

In India, Hayward said, 70 percent of women can’t afford period products—a phenomenon we’ve come to know as period poverty—which largely contributes to the fact that around 25 percent of girls dropout of school when they hit puberty.

“The problem in rural India and Kenya, and similar communities, extends beyond periods. When women are less educated, they have fewer opportunities, and women can end up unemployed or employed in the sex trade,” Hayward said.

Photo of Molly Hayward by Ashley Peak 

Even here in the U.S., although the current administration’s threat to make birth control less accessible may seem like the biggest issue facing women right now, there is another major women’s health accessibility issue that has been looming for decades: or women may be forced to choose between lunch for the day or a package of generic sanitary napkins.

In reporting on this topic before, I have spoken with women who have spent an entire day commuting on buses to find a homeless shelter stocked with sanitary pads.

What happens when women don’t have access to period products?

When it gets bad enough for women in the U.S., they will use dirty paper bags, dirty socks they find on the sidewalk, or worse, just to get through a day on their period.  According to The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homeless Assessment Report, shelters report that menstrual products (tampons and pads) are some of the most requested but least donated products.

Aside from the feeling of embarrassment and shame that accompany inadequate period products, women leave themselves at risk for infection that they also cannot afford to treat. It’s safe to say that this is not just a social justice issue, but a major health and wellness issue.

Distributing Dignity

Joanie Balderstone, co-founder of Distributing Dignity, didn’t set out to create a nonprofit whose mission is to distribute new bras, pads, and tampons to women in need. But in doing other charity work, it became clear demand for bras and sanity products wasn’t being met—not just in homeless shelters, but also in foster care and for those seeking refuge from domestic violence, veterans, and women fighting life altering illness or displaced by disaster.

“We couldn’t sit idly by knowing women didn’t have pads and tampons, something so many of us take for granted and have taken for granted for years, so we decided to put together a plan to tackle this issue as an organization and on a bigger scale,” Balderstone said. “The conversation about women needing monthly products only became mainstream a few years ago and it leaves some people uncomfortable talking about it. The reality is, it’s a necessary and natural process and everyone is impacted by it in one way or another. We are all here because of a woman’s biology.”

Desperate decisions

Here in the U.S., said Balderstone, women in desperate need have to make difficult choices between having supplies and feeding themselves or providing for their children.

“Women shouldn’t have to make choices between all of these things are necessary for their health and wellbeing,” Balderstone said. “And the organizations we support shouldn’t have to make those choices either.”

She’s referring to the 73 partner organizations they work with to distribute donations in 56 cities across 19 United States, including a total of 3,000 bras, 170,000 tampons and 68,000 pads in 2017 alone.  

Balderstone said the number of people helped is tough to quantify, but if we assume that a woman might use 20 pads or tampons during her cycle, that would translate to providing almost 12,000 women with a month’s supply.  To help them make an impact, you can donate through the Distributing Dignity website, purchase items from their Amazon wish list, or organize a collection drive for items with friends, colleagues, and schools.

“Giving these items to women does more than fulfill her monthly need. It sends a message that she is worth it and that there are others out there who care and want to be a support her journey,” Balderstone said.

How Simply the Basics provides care to women experiencing homelessness

Echoing Balderstone’s sentiments is Meghan Freebeck, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Simply the Basics. Freebeck said it can be challenging to quantify the women her organization has helped because menstrual products are still considered by some to be  “luxury” items. However, not having basic essentials can lead to even higher costs incurred, burying women deeper into the cycle of poverty.

“Not having access also leads to greater expenses, such as doing extra laundry or needing new underwear and pants because they have been ruined,” Freebeck explained, adding that it is also a major health issue, which can also lead to further expenses.

“Women experiencing homelessness are at the greatest risk for infections related to hygiene and access to products. Many women will use the same products for longer than they should, or they will substitute proper care with anything they can access, such as newspapers or even leaves. There are many core issues with not having access to tampons and pads, specifically when many women must resort to unsafe homemade solutions, causing UTIs, Toxic Shock Syndrome, and more.”

One of the nonprofit’s biggest goals for 2018 is to increase its response to community needs and reduce the rate of infections and use of emergency services for preventable conditions.

Photo of Meghan Freebeck by Michael Short, via San Francisco Chronicle

“We also respond in disaster relief across the nation—after a natural disaster, a person’s least concern should be ‘where will I get tampons’—and have several nonprofits we support in other cities,” Freebeck said. “We are also creating a chapter-based program where every city and community in the country has their most basic needs met through our efficient and volunteer-based model.”

Within the U.S. public school system, the effects can be especially devastating.

How “Period Poverty” affects education

“I was sitting with a 13-year-old girl, who lives in a family shelter with her mom, talking about her needs and how important it is to keep her body healthy. She felt safe enough to share the story of when she was in the bathroom at her public school and realized that she got her period for the first time, afraid to go to the nurse and too embarrassed to tell her friends,” Freebeck said. “She stayed on the toilet for over two hours. She knew that standing would ruin her pants, and her family couldn’t afford to buy a new pair, so she sat on the toilet for the remainder of the day, missing three classes in a row. To make matters more tragic, because she missed her afternoon classes, she received detention.”

This young girl, feeling alone and scared, was missing out on her education and additionally being punished for it, proving stigma is still a major issue in many communities.

“We made the decision right there to have tampons and pads as readily available as toilet paper. You wouldn’t need to go to the nurse for toilet paper, menstrual products should be the same,” Freebeck said.

Freebeck and her team at Simply the Basics have found some especially unique ways to give back, such as period parties, collecting menstrual products while female comedians shared their worst first period stories, educating young girls in local schools, offering outreach in community groups, and distributing resource cards for women and girls through a partnership with Project Homeless Connect.

In 2017, the organization provided 66,800 menstrual products across eight states and 50 organizations.

Meeting needs and seeing change

There have been other victories over the past  year as well: Freebeck noted that after a year of Simply the Basics providing products to the public schools in San Francisco, the city finally voted to provide products to low income schools. Similar nonprofits have launched, and companies like Cora are harnessing the power of business to create social change in the U.S. and overseas.

“We know that when your most basic needs are met, you can focus on greater goals, but not before. Our goals are to improve the physical health and wellness of the community and to save nonprofits time and resources so they can focus on their missions,” said Freebeck.

When it comes to accessibility, we can’t change the circumstances that leave so many women without. Awareness is an important first step, and how we rally as women—and men—to help make these basic human necessities accessible is change that we can truly impact.

Featured image by Natalie Allgyer

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