Unless you’re having an unwanted pregnancy scare, it’s probably safe to say that few people eagerly await their periods. There’s the bloating, fatigue, mood swings, and cramping — and those are the mild symptoms, discounting more severe ones like lower-back pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weakness (which still aren’t even seen as abnormal by WebMD). Even without physical symptoms, those who get their period have to deal with the inconvenience of having to wear a pad, tampon, or menstrual cup for a few straight days. To add insult to inconvenience, feminine hygiene products are expensive, and not exactly optional, either. For those with uteruses who do not struggle to make ends meet, paying for hygiene supplies is an annoyance. But for women in poverty, and especially homeless women, getting their period every month can be more than an inconvenience — it can be a huge setback that can even pose health risks.

In a 2016 video and accompanying article, Bustle followed a few homeless women and detailed how they deal with their periods every month. For the approximately 50,000 people with uteruses living on the streets across the United States, every month poses a problem because of the often insurmountable expense of paying for pads and tampons. Bustle notes in their article that sometimes women may resort to stealing supplies. Some can get by with the free supplies provided by outreach groups or shelters, but those are not always sufficient (and may not arrive in time for their cycles). So, at that point, they resort to other tactics, using items like socks, paper towels, toilet paper, cotton balls, clothing, or other items instead of hygiene products. This lack of access to affordable hygiene products is also known as “period poverty,” which Global Citizen defines as “the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and, or, waste management.” Period poverty can cause discomfort and stress, but more than that, using items that are not meant to absorb period blood can lead to infections. Period poverty poses serious issues to both the individuals and menstruating people on a large scale.

Luckily, since 2016, many organizations have cropped up to help address period poverty. At age 16, after spending several months without a home, Portland native Nadya Okamoto started PERIOD.org, a nonprofit that gives women access to period supplies. It’s a youth-run NGO with chapters nationwide that seeks to end period poverty and stigma through service, education, and advocacy. Okamoto says, “To date, PERIOD has addressed over 560,000 periods through product distribution, and registered over 400 campus chapters at universities and high schools in all 50 states and beyond.” 

period poverty
Getty/Theo Wargo

Period poverty has serious consequences, both on a micro scale for the individual and on a macro scale for society as a whole. Okamoto notes, “period-related pain is a leading cause of absenteeism amongst girls in school, and periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries.”

And while access to sanitary products is certainly a huge problem for people with uteruses in the United States, it’s not limited to one country. For instance, Canada-based manufacturer Lunapads has a giveback program called One4Her, which donates a portion of sales to support AFRIpads. AFRIpads, according to Jane Hope, marketing and communications at Lunapads, is “a social impact business providing jobs for Ugandans and reusable pads for girls in the Global South.” This effort is important because as many as 10% of girls miss school because of lack of access to menstrual products. Hope says, The effect of these missed days is devastating, with girls missing up to 20% of their education, thereby increasing the likelihood of dropping out, earlier marriage and pregnancy, as well as limiting career options.” And, given that women make up important contributions to the workforce — even in developing countries where their labor is not accurately measured or excluded from national accounts — having their career options limited simply because of a natural biological process that occurs every month is not acceptable. 

There are many ways to go about addressing period poverty. Lunapads, for one, has lent product development advice and financial assistance to a number of organizations to help get them off the ground. They also are providing women with reusable pads to alleviate the pressure of having to find products every single month. To date, they have helped provide over 17,000 people who menstruate with healthy and sustainable products in 18 nations in the Global South. 

Providing people who menstruate with free or affordable products is one major way to help eliminate period poverty, but it’s not the only solution — especially in the United States. Nadya Okamoto notes, “It’s 2019, and yet, 34 US states still have a sales tax on period products because they are considered luxury items (unlike Rogaine and Viagra).” Taking down the “tampon tax,” as Okamoto calls it, would remove a significant barrier. In addition to eliminating the tax, Okamoto says the strategy “is with changing the system itself: working to get period products to be freely accessible for all people (starting with schools, shelters, and prisons).”

Dana Marlowe, founder and executive director at I Support The Girls — an organization that collects and distributes essential items, including bras, underwear, and menstrual hygiene products — says her organization is also working toward these goals. They have partnered with the Indiana Department of Corrections to donate and bag 20,000 tampons and 15,000 pads for women in prison. They are also “presently working with dozens of school districts to ensure girls have access while in school, including First Nation schools especially in New Mexico, Colorado, and South Dakota.” They also donate products to food pantries in the U.S., as Marlowe explains, “they are usually visited by women, and paper products are not typically donated, they aren’t covered by any government assistance, so when women are able to get menstrual hygiene products at a food pantry, it’s a big help.”

In addition to volunteering and donating, another thing that would really make a difference? “TALK!” Okamoto insists. “The easiest way to make a difference is to TALK ABOUT PERIODS. Start conversations, talk about the need to get rid of the stigma, talk about needing to mobilize to eradicate period poverty, and then take action.” People can’t fix a problem that they are not aware is a problem, so on the individual level, talking about periods is huge. Marlowe echoes the need to simply talk about periods: “We need to move discussions about periods from hushed tones into the public arena,” she says. “Many people do not want to discuss it for a variety of reasons. But that means the problem is never addressed.”

But a more proactive way to take action, Okamoto notes, is to start a chapter of PERIOD, adding, “You can also host a packing party, [and] donate products.” (Period.org has resources on how to get started.) Marlowe agrees. “Get involved!” she urges. “Women make up more than 50% of the population, yet the majority are sitting on the sidelines. As more females end up on the street, ALL females need to advocate for their rights. And yes, that includes their right to access menstrual hygiene products for free.”