The UK government has announced it is set to take measures to ensure sanitary products are free across all schools in England. The move was a result of years of work by activists — most notably #FreePeriod Campaign by Amika George — fighting to end period poverty in the country.
Once in action, it will benefit one in 10 girls from low income households, currently unable to afford sanitary products — resulting in more than 12 percent of girls missing class while on their period.
Similar policies are already in place in Scotland with much success. While impressive, these measures have prompted us to reflect on the state of period poverty here in the United States, arguably the biggest superpower in the world, with the largest economy.
Across the United States, 41 percent of kids live in low-income families. Even within that number, there's a huge gender disparity. Nearly 14 percent of girls and women live below the poverty line — compared to only 11 percent of boys and men.
This often leads to girls having to resort to makeshift methods such as rolling swaths of toilet paper onto their underwear, which only reinforces the cycle of poverty. Let's not forget the pain and discomfort that comes with menstruation, which is often debilitating.
A recent bill in New York followed by several other states made it mandatory for schools, correctional facilities, and homeless shelters to provide menstrual hygiene products — a thoughtful decision, but only on surface. The mandate remains unfunded, meaning it's up to the schools and facilities to bear the full cost of services and products.
Schools districts need to account for buying a sufficient amount of tampons and put up dispensers in the bathrooms, which comes to more than $8,000 — an expense local governments could easily cough up given that items like band-aids, condoms, sunscreen, and even viagra are within state budgets.
You better believe if cis men had a similar and constant need, this wouldn't even be up for discussion.
Soap and toilet paper are also available as a public commodity because there is a civically expected level of hygiene, however since tampons and pads are labeled as "luxury goods," they're somehow exempt from the basic hygiene category.
It's also important to note that most people in charge of the allocation of public funds (men) don't really menstruate and are unable to grasp the impact of having to miss school or work or bleeding through your underwear because you can't afford something as fundamental as a sanitary napkin. You better believe if cis men had a similar and constant need, this wouldn't even be up for discussion.
But forget making sanitary products free, the U.S. as a whole has even failed to abolish the nonsensical taxes on tampons and pads. In the United States, tampons sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, and other comparable products are still subject to a luxury tax, otherwise known as the tampon tax, levied on items not considered basic necessities. Several countries, including Canada, India, Kenya and Ireland, have all scrapped sales and value-added taxes on menstrual products.
So why can't the U.S. do it?
Let's consider how expensive it is to buy a pack of pads in the country. A box of 52 Always Ultra Thin, Overnight Pads With Wings Unscented, for instance, costs $13.49 at CVS that lasts for about one or two cycles depending on the person. That's about $7 per month per woman — a cost that is far too expensive for someone struggling to make rent or money for food. The situation gets much more dire, of course, when it's a single mom providing for her children while working a low-wage job.
Close to 12 million women across the U.S. aged between 12 to 52 live below poverty line, and most of them don't have access to sanitary pads. Currently, neither tampons or pads are available through government assistance programs like SNAP or Medicaid.
Most U.S. states have even gone as far as exempting groceries and medications from sales tax labeling them as "necessities," but that generosity doesn't extend to menstrual products. Only nine states in the entire country have definite policies in place that make sure feminine hygiene products are pink tax free. Even within those states, for those experiencing poverty, a decent sanitary product is unaffordable.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is society's relentless refusal to see women's pain and struggles as real.
There's also the issue of the shame. We may think it's something that only affects smaller or underdeveloped nations, but the U.S. itself isn't quite there yet. Homeless shelters and non profits report that while menstrual products are among the most requested products, the discussions around them are timid. A recent study revealed that there are about 5,000 slang words used to refer to menstruation in 10 different languages, which is indicative of the larger taboo that prevents people from talking about it, by extension helping corporations in making profits.
Stigma, poverty, and a lack of access are three foundational elements that define period poverty in the U.S. today. Some young women resort to using the few tampons they can afford for prolonged periods of time, risking toxic shock syndrome, cervical cancer, and other dangerous infections. Women account for more than 50 percent of the American population. Then there's large spectrum of trans and non binary people who also menstruate, who continue to be marginalized in every way.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is society's relentless refusal to see women's pain and struggles as real. Gender roles suggest that women are 'dramatic and delusional,' which is apparent in the way we talk about menstruation —laughing off the physical discomfort of it all.
No matter how conspicuous, society will do its best to erase any evidence of the reality of living through a period. Instagram will delete pictures with a period stain, and others will make light of PMS as if it's nothing but an excuse for women to be their 'melodramatic' selves.
We're so deeply indoctrinated with these ideas that even when it's staring us through a red blood clot on a plain white sheet, we can't see it.
Photo via Getty