The group of Madison youth activists is working to end stigma and period poverty.
Photo: Activist Maggie Di Sanza drops off a shipment of menstrual products at The River Food Pantry on the North Side. Photo courtesy of Bleed Shamelessly.
In recent months, food and supplies have been distributed to countless community members struggling to make ends meet amid the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But a vital item was often missing from those relief packages: period products. Hard-hit households might not be able to afford them.
A dedicated group of local high schoolers stepped up to donate pads and tampons to be disseminated alongside other necessities. Founded in 2018, Bleed Shamelessly works to normalize menstruation, end period poverty, and educate about a normal, yet stigmatized, bodily function experienced at some point by roughly half of all humans.
On Saturday, January 30, Bleed Shamelessly is hosting the Madison Menstrual Equity Zoom Showcase from 3 to 5 p.m to raise awareness about and funds for their cause. Local high school activists will share art and speeches about menstruation and reproductive justice activism. National youth advocates from Girls Global Initiative and Youth Climate Action Team are scheduled to speak, as well as Wisconsin Sen. Melissa Agard (D-16th), Madison School Board member Ali Muldrow, and illustrator and Tone Madison contributor Rachel Duggan.The showcase will also feature youth-produced videos on period poverty in Madison, the tampon tax, trans-inclusive menstruation, and comprehensive menstrual education.
Bleed Shamelessly began after Memorial High student Maggie Di Sanza took a summer camp class at UW-Madison on the intersection of writing and activism. It inspired her to post blogs about menstrual equity. Data on how the inability to afford basic menstrual hygiene products affects people who have periods—the beginning of the cycle of period poverty—is staggering. A national survey of teens showed that one in five can’t afford period products. Among low-income women, a study found that two-thirds have had to choose between food and hygiene necessities, making do with cloth, rags, tissues, toilet paper and sometimes even diapers or paper towels taken from public bathrooms. Tampons and sanitary pads aren’t covered by WIC and SNAP federal social programs. In Wisconsin, they’re taxed at the same rate as luxury goods like alcohol. And, as Di Sanza explained in a May 2020 guest column for Tone Madison, the pandemic has only made the problem worse.
“Often, when people don’t have access to menstrual products, it doesn’t just affect their reproductive health, it also impacts their ability to attend work and school,” says Di Sanza, now a senior. This continues the cycle of period poverty. “It’s happening in our neighborhoods and our communities and historically marginalized people are going to be the most impacted,” particularly people who are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, immigrants, and the currently and previously incarcerated.
Bleed Shamelessly organizes via phone banking, lobbying, community outreach, and hosting events like their National Period Day rally in October 2019. The group supports Sen. Agard’s years-long effort against removing the so-called tampon tax in Wisconsin, as well as her successful efforts toward free period products in some state government restrooms. Bleed Shamelessly is also working with Madison Common Council alders to direct emergency pandemic relief funding to provide period products in all city building restrooms—including men’s and gender-neutral restrooms.
Government and publicly funded buildings are just the start of Bleed Shamelessly’s goals.
“We want to work with them to ensure that businesses and not just public places will provide menstrual products, so wherever you go—bookstores and coffee shops—you can find menstrual products there,” Di Sanza says.
Until visiting a public restroom that might be stocked with pads and tampons is a safe option, Bleed Shamelessly volunteers are busy distributing them to community members. The period packs consist of a brown paper bag filled with six tampons and nine pads—enough to cover an average menstrual cycle. Kits with more pads and fewer tampons are distributed to schools, where younger people might not use tampons. Packs for Planned Parenthood contain only pads for people who have just had an abortion. Since the pandemic began, Bleed Shamelessly has distributed more than 4,000 product kits in Southern Wisconsin through food pantries and community coalition programs, as well as 600 kits to students and families in Madison. They plan to provide 600 kits every two to three weeks to Madison middle and high schools for the remainder of the school year. Kits are made available in boxes at school buildings, as well as through food pick-up programs.
Bleed Shamelessly educates about the intersections of their cause with other movements, including economic and environmental justice.
Group member and Memorial High senior Anika Sanyal says learning about menstrual inequality and stigma in India motivated her activism.
“As someone who comes from a place of privilege, it’s my obligation to dismantle some of the barriers that some people face surrounding menstrual equity and to listen to the voices and uplift the voices of people who are struggling with this issue,” Sanyal says.
Menstrual equity also intersects with trans and nonbinary rights, says Memorial High junior Amira Pierotti.
“I love being able to touch on all of these different topics and actually make a change in the Madison community,” Pierotti says. For instance, “capitalism and how it’s a failing system that keeps period poverty in place.”
Young people have a natural and growing place in activism, Bleed Shamelessly members say.
“Give us a say and let us have control about issues that adults really haven’t done anything with. Menstrual equity, environmental injustice—all of these things surrounding inequity are just something that we’re trying to take control over,” Sanyal says.