Periods may be involuntary but they certainly aren’t free. There are empty seats in classrooms and cubicles around the world daily because individuals are unable to obtain the necessary menstrual hygiene products needed to live their lives. In November, Scotland became the first country to provide free period products to all who need them but this groundbreaking legislation is only a small step towards dismantling what’s known as the “pink tax” and the many sexist and classist policies that punish people for a natural bodily function they didn’t ask for, nor control.
And it’s not just an issue abroad. A 2019 study published in the Journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that nearly two-thirds of low-income women in St. Louis, MO, have difficulty accessing the products they need. Black women are particularly at risk for facing period poverty, but they’re also stepping in to create change and call out the culture that deems menstruation a “luxury.” We spoke to three of them about how they’re raising awareness around period disparities and providing resources in their communities.
Public relations executive and Girl Scouts Board Member Sabrina Browne was shocked when she learned the realities of period poverty in the United States.
“My base knowledge of period poverty was that this was something that was impacting women and girls predominantly in third-world or war-torn countries,” Browne told MadameNoire. The more she learned, however, the more she felt compelled to act. “I’ve become much more aware of what period poverty actually means in this country and how it’s impacting women and girls who look like me specifically — Black and Brown women. It was so important for me to get involved.”
Prior to joining the fight against period poverty, Browne routinely advocated for women to receive more professional resources, but after researching this issue, she realized there were even more basic needs women and girls were lacking. By partnering with The Flow Initiative Foundation, she procured more than 2,000 menstrual products to donate to those in need.
“People don’t realize the cycle that comes to fruition when you’re a woman or you’re a girl and you’re not able to access menstrual health products,” Browne explained, pointing out that at the very least this could mean missing days of school or work. “It does have a ripple effect across your education, across your career” she added. “How can we keep more women and girls in school? How can we continue to build a pipeline of future female leaders? It starts with health. It starts with menstrual health, and that’s why it’s so important to raise awareness for period poverty. I want to see more young girls who look like me in the corporate boardroom, getting those degrees, finishing their MBAs. But if something as simple as not having a tampon is standing in their way, if not being able to have a pad is standing in their way, we all can take actions to make sure that a young girl and a woman is able to take that next step in her life.”
Browne also stressed the importance of taking an intersectional approach to solving the problem and moving conversations around periods beyond gender. “The reality is we know that women and girls tend to be the first audience that people think about when it comes to menstrual health and period poverty. But there are those who are in the LGBTQ community who are impacted, so being intersectional in our approach, being inclusive of all of those who are using the product is key,” she said. “It starts with awareness.”
She recommends that those who want to help begin by taking a stand in their own backyards, saying, “Starting with a community-level approach, convening your family, your neighbors, your local mayor and assemblyman or woman really helps to kind of get things off the ground. Once we’re educated on something, then we’re informed on something. And when we’re informed on something, then we can take action. So the advocacy to education to inform to action pipeline is so critical when it comes to something such as period poverty.”
Supermodel Flaviana Matata has been working to provide resources to those in need in her native Tanzania through her eponymous foundation for years. Today she’s taking her efforts further by beginning her own line of menstrual hygiene products and helping break the stigma of menstruation through the hashtag #PERIODDOESNOTSTOP. Her personal care products company Lavvy is also providing educational resources for people who menstruate and their family members.
“Beginning on the family, school, and communal level, we are providing resources and education as we firmly believe everyone should be well educated about menstruation opening the way for open dialogue,” Matata said. “It can’t be left for women only. Imagine a girl gets her first period and she is with her father, brother, uncle, are they not supposed to help as needed by at least getting her pads? We are working to break the silence around periods and normalize open conversations about it.”
Much of what Matata encourages comes from her own personal experience. “I speak openly about my period even with my brother and male friends,” she continued. “I have asked them to get me pads when needed as well. My periods are very painful and I normally get very sick. When needed, they have taken me to the hospital and they have always made sure I was safe and taken care of during those times. However, it’s not lost on me that this isn’t the experience for millions of others. That is what I’m working digitally to change.”
And like Browne, a great deal of Matata’s work involves education around the trickle-down effects of shaming those who menstruate.
“Periods are a part of life, we can’t ignore it or treat it as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about,” she stated. “Both men and women should be involved in conversations about it. Collectively, we should all be working to come up with solutions to combat period poverty. Imagine missing three-five days of school every month when you’re on your period simply because you don’t have access to and funds to purchase sanitary pads. That’s an average of 48 days annually.”
One of Mata’s proposed solutions is to see free menstrual hygiene products distributed in educational settings with the same zeal as free condoms. “People decide to have sex, but women don’t decide to have periods.”
Crystal Etienne has a very basic philosophy when it comes to menstruation and her period panty brand Ruby Love: “We believe that periods should never stop women from doing, being, and going,” she said.
The company which specializes in leak-proof undergarments, swimsuits, and loungewear makes monetary donations to aid people who lack access to menstrual hygiene products. It also distributes educational materials to “challenge common misconceptions and equip teens and with the tools they need to embrace their periods,” Etienne said.
Ruby Love has also provided support to the Women’s Prison Association to address sanitary access. According to the ACLU, “few states require or ensure adequate access to menstrual products in correctional facilities.” This leaves the amount, quality, and frequency of the menstrual hygiene products distributed to incarcerated persons at the discretion of the individual facilities.” Additionally, the Georgetown Law Review reports that incarcerated persons “may be required to purchase menstrual hygiene products from prison commissaries, though it can take more than 20 hours of work at prison wages to earn enough money to purchase a one month supply of pads or tampons.”
At the most basic level, Ruby Love is putting attention on period care so that attention can be taken off of one of the body’s most natural processes, said Etienne. “Our signature leak-proof technology provides maximum absorption and protection in all apparel so that period days can be like every other day.”