The economic impact of the pandemic is deepening the age-old inequities menstruating people face.
Illustration by Rachal Duggan.
Our society likes to avoid “period talk,” but mentioning cramps or asking for a tampon costs us much more than aghast reactions or awkward exchanges. As the amount of novel coronavirus cases are expected to peak in Wisconsin in late April to early May, more and more people will become infected, lose their jobs, and have little to no access to medical necessities. That includes menstrual products. Thus, our lack of comfort when addressing periods becomes a matter of health and disparity for a significant portion of our population.
The word “menstruation” almost always automatically engenders feelings of discomfort, whether or not you experience a period. In fact, according to the Female Forward Together Study from the advocacy group Period, one in five menstruating people do not feel comfortable discussing periods with a healthcare professional. Menstruation is treated globally as disgusting, shameful, and impure, and period-having people have borne the brunt of such attitudes for centuries.
This cultural stigma is much more grave than the occasional slipping a tampon up a sleeve to “preserve modesty.” The cultural scorn associated with menstruation causes surprising difficulties to bleed into the monthly lives of people with periods. United States programs like food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at the federal level and FoodShare in Wisconsin) and Medicaid actually exclude menstrual products from “essential items” lists. The state of Wisconsin treats period products as luxuries, and taxes them like hairdryers, cigarettes, and alcohol. At the same time, male health products like erectile dysfunction medications are exempt from taxes, and considered necessities.
In Wisconsin, women are 20% more likely to experience homelessness, housing insecurity, or poverty than men are. In fact, as of 2018, female people account for 200,000 people in poverty in Wisconsin. This inequitable reality leads menstruating people to have to choose between putting food on the table, and managing their periods healthily. A lack of access to period products can also be detrimental to people’s health, as menstruating persons are forced to use unsanitary objects like toilet paper, old clothes, and even cardboard in places of pads or tampons; further, the use of these products can cause toxic shock syndrome, infertility, cervical cancer, and even death. And this is not a small-scale issue. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic only worsens such tribulations, and creates additional economic uncertainty for already struggling people.
And dismally, periods do not stop for pandemics. So, it is up to the community and government to provide for the economically disadvantaged. Despite the obvious need, policymakers in Wisconsin have done little to nothing to support menstruating people amid this pandemic. Even at the federal level, it took Congress nearly two months to include menstrual hygiene products as a part of its COVID-19 relief efforts. In the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act that Congress passed last month, and that has since been signed into law, period products are now available for reimbursement.
While this is a significant stride in the right direction, many people still struggle to gain access to crucial products, and climbing unemployment rates are not helping the cause. In Wisconsin, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and thousands of people are becoming more economically disadvantaged. As a result, homeless shelters and food pantries are being flooded with urgent requests for food, protection supplies, medical necessities, and government support. Despite the incredible need, period products are often forgotten in donations, and federal or state subsidies. NBC News reports that “tampons and pads are one of the least donated items for homeless women in the United States, despite being highly requested.” Consequently, menstruating people are left without the period products that are vital to their health.
Regional efforts across the country are working to combat this surge in period poverty. In Wisconsin, local activists Anika Sanyal, Amira Pierotti and I have been working on a community service effort to provide menstrual products to people in need in Dane County. Thus far, we have raised over $3,000 and served over 1,000 people at seven different locations. We create “period packs,” designed to provide one period’s worth of products, including nine tampons and six pads. We are continuing to fundraise on GoFundMe, where all proceeds are dedicated to purchasing the resources needed to provide period products to disadvantaged community members, such as cardboard boxes, paper bags, pads, and tampons.
In times of crisis, it is vital that all community members do their part in giving, supporting, and advocating for those who cannot. Everyone who is able, menstruator or not, must do their part in providing for those who do not have access to period products. Donate money or products to local shelters and fundraising campaigns, and contact your local representatives and demand that they serve all period-having people in the community. Periods continue no matter the state of the world, so it is our responsibility to serve them.