For many, periods are dreaded; That Time of the Month is never much fun. Between cramps, cravings and finding the right clothes to wear, it's definitely not always easy. But what happens when menstrual supplies aren’t accessible? For the over 200,000 homeless women living in the US alone*, menstrual cycles are far more than a mere inconvenience. Sometimes, they're a factor in survival. Currently, about 40% of people living on the streets experience periods, all of which have no government-provided source that ensures access to menstrual products such as pads and tampons.
When speaking about issues that affect people we don’t always interact with, it is easier to push these issues out of our minds. If it’s not personal, we feel like we don’t need to have stakes in the issue. This is why we bring you Kaliah’s experience. Kailah is an American woman from New York who has been living off of the streets for over 15 years. In an interview with Bustle, Kailah said that every morning, she walks to the nearest park restroom and uses nothing but the sink water and her hands to wash her body. Kailah also mentioned that she sometimes will buy pads, and has taught herself to roll them up in order to form tampons, since actual tampons are too expensive. She, like many of us, values her personal hygiene, but unfortunately can’t always afford to maintain it.
Currently circulating the feminist movement is a new concept called “free bleeding”, in which one who is menstruating chooses to abstain from using any sanitary products such as pads, tampons, menstrual cups, or even toilet paper -- The act is a temporary form of protest against excessive taxes, unspecified ingredients in tampons, and overall stigma.. So, if a handful of well-meaning feminists choose to free bleed, meaning it is a doable exercise, then why can't homeless people who cannot afford sanitary products allow their periods to just run its course? Well, the key word here is “choice”. It is a privilege to make the decision to free-bleed, but oftentimes, a homeless woman on the streets does not have the opportunity to decide.
According to HuffPost, on average, a menstruating person experiences about 456 menstrual cycles throughout their lifetime. That pretty much totals to a monthly cost of about $7 worth of menstrual products, at least $50 annually (depending on the type of product). Now that may not seem like a ton, but a recent study done in San Francisco said that the average homeless person made less than $25 a day, depending on their location (“Everything You Think You Know About Panhandlers Is Wrong.”). That’s without even considering the sales tax that 37 out of the 50 states in the US have placed on menstrual hygiene products because they consider them to be “luxury items.” Luxury is being able to afford guac in your burrito even though its extra, not systemically having unfertilized, broken eggs needing to leave your body. If the government were to cover the costs of these products for homeless women, that would be $50 a year, multiplied by the 200,000 women, equalling about 10 million dollars, in a country that holds a federal budget of over 3.8 trillion dollars. I think they can afford it!
Let’s be realistic- if someone cannot afford substantial clothing or any form of shelter, $7 is far more than they can spend. For a woman living on the streets, those seven dollars often come at the expense of a meal or clothing. We have convinced ourselves that homeless people have put themselves in the situation they face and that it is their own responsibility, not the government’s, to deal with its struggles. When in all actuality, that is far from the case. The NCCP (National Center for Children in Poverty) states that about 21% of children in the United States are born into families that receive incomes below the federal poverty threshold. In many other cases, these young girls and women are fleeing domestic violence or an abusive foster system. That’s 15 million girls that are born already set up with an inclined probability of facing severe financial struggles later in their adult life. So, why are we punishing people who didn’t choose to be homeless by not providing them the proper care for a periodic menstrual cycle they didn’t choose to have for 50 years of their lives? Statistics aside, if stores can afford to give out free plastic utensils, then why can’t our public restrooms provide free hygiene products? Let that sink in. Humans already have things put in public spaces, why not have something women need?
Still don’t believe we have an issue? Grab your cell or run to the nearest computer and search up, word for word, “where can I get free condoms” into your search engine. Now, just to be accurate, I tested this out myself. With the slightest clicks of my computer keys, I was instantly met with several links promising a variety of options for me. Specifically, one website stood out, condomfinder.org, in which all I had to do was type in my zip/postal code, and the generator would guide me to the nearest free condom. Convenient, right?! So, I decided to test that once again, only this time, instead of “condom” I typed “tampon”. Can you see where this is heading? On my second attempt, I was met with corporate industry advertisements for free samples of their feminine products, or a couple coupon offers for a discounted pack of pads. Of course, we have condoms available everywhere. In most cases, it is men in positions of power making decisions, and women’s health and hygiene is not a priority. Not to mention that periods (a natural bodily function) are seen as taboo, and not socially acceptable. In fact, Planned Parenthood was the only organization that came up in both searches, which ironically enough, is currently at risk of losing government funding. Now if that’s not enough to make you realize the ethical crisis at hand, then you are either A) drowning in cis male privilege, or B) simply lacking sympathy. In both cases, you’re in the wrong.
Don’t worry, though, because there just might be some people who care enough to make a difference. Nadya Okamoto is a 19 year old activist, currently attending Harvard University, who has set out to transform the status of menstruation awareness across the globe. After losing official housing in her early years of high school, Okamoto was exposed to a variety of people living without shelter, and noticed the struggles of their lifestyles. It was only then that began speaking to them about their menstruations and the different unsanitary products they had to use in order to cope. Four years later, Okamoto is now the Founder and and Executive Director of the non-profit organization PERIOD. PERIOD aims at three major goals- serving, educating, and advocating. PERIOD served over 20,000 periods and is still growing. However, Okamoto and her team believe that giving out products alone will not solve the human rights crisis we face. Rather it is through educating our communities and using the system to break stigma that we will gain menstrual rights.
So, can we please, starting with ourselves, set aside our societal fear of menstrual cycles and start giving attention to this matter? We do not get to call ourselves a developed nation if there are people in this country that struggle to have access to basic hygiene tools. We have hit an all-time low the day our establishment entertains the ignorance and immature avoidance of periods at the expense of a human in need’s personal hygiene.