Young Black woman sitting on couch in pain from a period
Period taboos and limitations prevent girls from managing their periods with dignity. Cultural stigmas around menstruation leave girls in the dark about their bodies. Photo: Getty Images. Yuri Arcurs Production.

The menstrual cycle is a natural biological function that prepares the body for the possibility of pregnancy. But in many parts of the world including here in the United States, young girls are faced with a public health issue that impacts their feminine health, and that is period poverty.

Young women who live in lower-income communities, underdeveloped countries or are homeless often struggle with a lack of resources during their menstrual cycles. According to the 2022 Journal of Global Health Reports, out of 16.9 million women or girls who menstruate in the U.S, two-thirds of them could not afford menstrual products, with half needing to choose between food or products.

This ultimately causes physical and emotional challenges. And if you delve deeper into states such as Texas, 1 in 16 women and girls between the ages of 12-44 live below the federal poverty line.

In a country full of access and resources, how can a crisis like this occur?

What is period poverty?

Poverty by definition is a state where an individual lacks access to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. It’s more than just having no money and it can be measured across health care, education,and standards of living.

Period poverty in this case, is the lack of access to not only menstrual products, but hygiene facilities, waste management and education. The term is relatively new, but the issue has been discussed for decades in the context of the gender gap in education for young people living in low- and middle-income communities.

“There are a lot of folks stories that are rooted in trauma and are rooted in the lack of education that has been passed down generationally,” said Zsanai Epps, director of Positive Period for the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) in Washington D.C. “This idea of young Black girls that get their period, they’re immediately hypersexualized and looked at as being too grown.”

Being unable to manage periods with the appropriate resources can make a girl feel uncomfortable, distressed and embarrassed. This experience impacts school attendance, self-esteem, health outcomes and future earning potential.

“There were families during the COVID-19 pandemic where Black women had to choose between buying expensive menstrual products or putting food on the table,” Epps said. “High school girls missed and average of two to three school days per month because of this and then when you add multi-generational homes with more than one menstruating person it can be costly.”

Impact on Black & Brown communities 

There are racial disparities for menstrual equity. A study by the Alliance for Period Supplies found that a quarter of Black (23%) and Latina (24%) people with periods strongly agree that they’ve struggled to afford products. In some capacity, Black women or girls who menstruate have experienced borrowing products, using toilet paper, fabric, leaving in menstrual products longer than recommended or nothing at all.

That is what Nikki Greenaway witnessed as a school nurse working with middle and high school students in New Orleans. She is a Houston-based nurse practitioner who saw how period poverty impacted young girls in schools.  

“Students would come up to me every month and asked if I had any pads,” she said. “I was told the school wasn’t responsible to provide the products, but rather the parents of the students were, and it wasn’t in their budget, I knew I had to do something about it.”

So Greenaway launched The Bloom Period Project in 2021 to provide menstrual products to schools and universities throughout New Orleans and Houston.

“Sometimes these young folks don’t have people to advocate on their behalf,” Greenway said. “People don’t understand the social and emotional toll this causes them.”

Discussions around periods are often surrounded by stigmas and silence and are often seen as taboo in many parts of the world. It is seen as uncleanly and disgusting rather than normal. This shame prevents people from talking about the taxes on these products.

Solutions

Like Greenaway, there are other advocates fighting to repeal the sales tax on menstrual products. Twenty-four states are currently tax-free, but Texas is among the states where consumers still pay tax on those products. CVS Health recently dropped the price of its store brand products which absorbs the cost of the “Tampon Tax.”

“Ending period poverty requires proper education on menstruation and the support of the community, government and health institutions,” said Dr. Jhumka Gupta, social epidemiologist and associate professor at George Mason University’s Department of Global and Community Health.

Gupta’s research on period poverty is helping to form a national discussion on health equity. Even though there are strides being made, she said there are key actions that should be taken to put an end to this public health crisis:

  1. Remove financial barriers and expand access to menstrual hygiene products.
  2. Schools should be equipped with free products and invest in sex education.
  3. Young women and girls need to be properly educated about their personal health and hygiene during menstrual cycles.
  4. Communities must work to reduce culture and social stigma.
  5. Support local and national initiatives and non-profits providing necessities for women and girls.
  6. Call your elected officials and voice your concerns.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...