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Advocating for Menstrual Equity in the U.S.

In March 2019, the Menstrual Equity for All Act (H.R. 3614) was introduced to congress. This bill would make free period products like pads and tampons widely available in the restrooms of schools, workplaces, and other facilities. The passing of this bill would result in improved menstrual equity across the country.

Although the introduction of this bill is a huge step forward in women’s health, as of now (July 2022), no further action has been made. There’s still work to do to end the not-so-often talked about period poverty and stigma that women and girls continue to face.

Read on to learn about menstrual health and the path toward menstrual equity.

Women of various ages and ethnicities looking serious

What is Menstrual Equity?

Menstrual equity (or period equity) is increased accessibility and affordability of safe menstrual products for menstruating people and women. The menstrual equity movement aims to eliminate period poverty in the U.S. and the world.

What is period poverty? According to Michela Bedard of PERIOD., it’s “a lack of access to period products, plus a lack of menstrual health education and awareness.” Currently, an estimated 500 million women in the world lack access to proper period care.

Think back to when you were in high school. There’s a good chance the women’s restroom lacked available period products. If there were pads or tampons available, they were safeguarded in a metal box on the wall and dispensed through a quarter slot. If you were lucky, they’d remain well-stocked.

When someone unexpectedly starts their period in public, there’s not much they can do unless someone has a spare pad or tampon to give. Circumstances can leave many women without the sanitary products they need to go about the rest of their lives.

There’s free toilet paper in every public bathroom— why not pads or tampons? This is the question period equity advocates are trying to solve.

Listen for more on the Fempower Health podcast: Menstrual Health Equity: Why It Matters to Us All.

Why Are Period Products Hard to Access for So Many?

There are a lot of social and economic factors that contribute to period poverty, which mainly affects lower-income, incarcerated, and marginalized women today. From careless policy to lack of proper education, society has yet to make period products— which are a necessity, not a luxury— accessible to all people who menstruate.

Taxed Feminine Products

The luxury tax or “pink tax” is an overarching term related to female-centered products being more expensive to the average consumer. Typically, if a product is pink or catered toward female stereotypes, prices are several dollars higher than regular products. This is easily seen in body care products, children’s toys, and gendered clothing.

Gender Injustices

Inequalities and injustices have ebbed and flowed throughout history, and gender is not excluded from the residual effects today. Ongoing inequalities remain issues of concern, such as the gender pay gap, medical disparities, and a lack of female political representation.

“No one should miss out on life, joy, work, or personal dignity just because of a natural need.” - Michela Bedard of PERIOD.

Medical Racism and Menstrual Health Inequalities

Historically, black women’s medical experiences, pain, and reproductive wellness haven’t always been taken seriously. Certain racial biases in medicine continue today, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Lack of Adequate Leadership

There’s a lack of menstrual equity at large and small-scale leadership levels. First, many public policies have yet to catch up with the growing demand for women’s health equity in our culture. Second, leaders and managers at public facilities (clinics, entertainment centers, universities, etc.) often pay little attention to menstrual needs.

Claire Coder, the founder of Aunt Flow, explained it this way. If facility leaders are presented with requests for free period products on-site, it’s common for them to respond with the question: shouldn’t women know when to expect their period ahead of time and come prepared? But let’s be real: not every woman’s cycle is the same, and individual menstrual cycles can vary from month to month.

There’s also the argument that free menstrual products are expensive. However, on average, it would cost $5 per female student per year to implement period products in bathrooms in the U.S.

Gaps in Healthcare Assistance Programs

Women who live at or below the poverty level do not have a way to affordably access menstrual products using public health benefits. This means they pay out of an already limited monthly budget. If they can’t afford to buy period products, some women resort to using napkins, washcloths, or soiled products for many hours, which can lead to infection or toxic shock syndrome.

Ways to End Period Poverty

How can we increase access to products women need during their periods? Here are a few ways to advocate for menstrual equity, no matter where you live.

  • Acknowledge positive changes. If you notice organizations and companies that offer free tampons in the bathroom, thank someone in charge. Positive feedback goes a long way.

  • Ask for improved period care where necessary. If your facility lacks free period products, talk to an executive about implementing some.

  • Self-advocacy. Advocate for your reproductive health. Talk about periods with people in your life; make the conversation more approachable and comfortable to help break the stigma.

  • Equip and train people with periods to advocate for their communities, institutions, and local/state policies.

  • Join the menstrual equity movement. Work toward improving overall menstrual health management. This includes education among parents, non-menstruators, and medical providers. Talk to your doctor about menstrual concerns and encourage girls to speak up. Spread awareness of menstrual health organizations like Aunt Flow and PERIOD.

“Seeing positive changes today doesn’t mean women are done advocating for menstrual health equity. It means we’re finally being heard, but there’s still more to be done.” - Georgie of Fempower Health

More on the menstrual cycle:

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