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Periods, Poverty, and the Pandemic: The Bloody Truth

COVID-19 has exacerbated "Period Poverty" for our most vulnerable populations.

 La Corneja Artesana/Shutterstock
"Scotland became the first country to make menstrual products free."
Source: La Corneja Artesana/Shutterstock

By Yoo Eun Kim, Guest Columnist for Apple a Day

In November 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make menstrual products free. Under this law, individuals could obtain tampons and sanitary pads at designated public places, including community centers and pharmacies.

I was delighted. As a former classroom teacher in a low-income community, I had supplied many period supplies to my struggling students over the years. However, I soon learned that a similar bill called the "Menstrual Equity for All Act" had recently died in Congress.

Introduced by U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) in 2019, the bill aimed to increase access to menstrual hygiene products in schools, prison facilities, and federal buildings, as many individuals must resort to using rags and paper towels because of challenges in availability and affordability. For example, nearly two-thirds of women from low-income backgrounds in St. Louis, Missouri, reported that they could not afford menstrual hygiene products.

Although menstruation is a natural biological function, period products don't have the same protections as other basic necessities such as groceries and medications. In November 2019, 34 states collected taxes on menstruation products, as they do not consider them "essentials."

Furthermore, the pandemic has exacerbated challenges in accessing menstrual products. In a 2020 survey conducted by WASH United, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and UNICEF, when asked, "What type of changes in accessing menstrual materials have there been during this pandemic?" Fifty-eight percent of respondents shared that they had less money to buy menstrual supplies. Moreover, when the participants about what their country should provide, many chose "free menstrual materials."

A number of middle school and high school teachers I knew spent their own money to discreetly provide students with pads and tampons in the classroom. However, because of school closures, many students now lack dependable access to menstrual products.

Fortunately, charities and nonprofit organizations started filling the void left by school closures during the pandemic. For example, "I Support The Girls," an organization focusing on female health and wellness, sent 100,000 menstrual supplies to Los Angeles; 2,000 to Trenton, New Jersey; 24,000 to the Salvation Army National Capital Area Command. However, donations provide only temporary stopgap measures.

Last May, Congresswoman Meng introduced another bill called the "Good Samaritan Menstrual Product Act," which "would allow for more menstrual products to be donated to and distributed by nonprofit organizations" during the pandemic. She stated, "Menstrual equity is not a choice or a luxury. It is a human right and a health right. Furthermore, in the current fight against COVID-19, periods do not wait for pandemics. [...] It is more important than ever to ensure these menstrual products can be obtained by everybody who needs them."

Addressing menstrual health in the backdrop of the pandemic and historic recession requires significant federal funding and community outreach. Without a law that provides menstrual products in public spaces, we will continue to fail our most vulnerable populations.

Yoo Eun Kim works in education management in Los Angeles, CA. Her writing has appeared in USA Today, Chicago Tribune, The Mercury News, The Korea Times, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @yooekim and Instagram @yooeunshares.


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