Time to Shut Out US Period Poverty
by Joanne Goldblum
Dawn Scott, high performance coach for the US Women’s Soccer Team, tracked players’ menstrual cycles, observed symptoms and helped athletes to optimize their play throughout their 2019 World Cup championship run. That Scott did this, and even more so that she talked about it with the press, shows how far we’ve come. There’s a growing recognition that menstruation is a natural, healthy process — certainly nothing that should cause shame or embarrassment — and that it should not stop anyone from excelling on the field, in the office or at school.
There’s a menstrual movement in the US that’s fighting antiquated stigma and working for equity. For example, advocates are pointing out that period supplies are not luxuries and that subjecting them to state sales taxes discriminates against women. That’s all great work that I’m proud to be a part of.
Now that we’re finally talking openly about menstruation, however, it’s critical that we talk about how it affects everyone. We know that one in four menstruating US women had to do without essential period supplies in the past year because she didn’t have the money to buy them. We know that one in five low-income menstruators missed school, work or a similar activity as a result. I’m delighted that top women athletes have access to world-class resources like period tracking technologies and health care providers who understand that good menstrual care matters. But we must also make sure that no one misses a class or a day’s pay because she cannot afford the most basic supplies to manage her period.
The Alliance for Period Supplies supports nonprofits around the country who give out pads and other essential period products for free to people who need them. In just a year of operation, we’ve seen that it’s made a difference. Our local program in Austin, Bright Spot, is making period supplies available in schools where girls had previously logged absences when they were menstruating. “I would fall behind on calculus. That’s just horrible,” one girl told us.
Our preliminary data show that free period supplies enable women to leave their homes for school, work or other activities. Most report feeling cleaner or healthier. And they say that not needing to purchase these items frees up money for other necessities, most commonly food. Keep in mind that government programs like SNAP and WIC that help people buy groceries do not cover hygiene supplies of any kind.
So let’s talk about equity, but let’s do it through the lens of period poverty. For too many women and girls, there is a barrier keeping them out of work and school – a barrier that simply does not exist for their male peers. That’s wrong.
Scotland recognizes as much, and so makes period supplies freely available in all public schools. In July, New Hampshire became the latest US state to provide period supplies in public schools, following a smattering of states and cities doing so, at least in high-poverty school districts. But they are in the vanguard. Freely available period supplies must become the norm.
Women workers earn 80 cents for every dollar male workers are paid. That statistic is so familiar that it does not even shock anymore. We’ve made little progress in closing the wage gap over decades. Myriad cultural and structural factors are to blame for this inequity. Providing period supplies, however, is low-hanging fruit.
Women who cannot afford period supplies are typically hourly workers without significant paid time off, if indeed they have any. Period poverty is keeping the women who most need a day’s wages out of work. It’s keeping girls who want to excel and build a better life for themselves out of school. This isn’t something happening just in the global south. It is happening in the US. It probably happening in your town.
The winning US Women’s National Soccer Team members emphasize the importance of teamwork. That’s as true in life as it is in sports. How can we have a thriving economy and thriving country if we sideline so many women and girls who cannot afford period supplies? They have contributions to make every day of the month. Let’s let them.
Joanne Goldblum is CEO of the Alliance for Period Supplies and the National Diaper Bank Network.