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Menstrual Equity is an American Issue, Too

Last week, filmmakers Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for their film Period. End of Sentence. The documentary was produced to raise awareness for a nonprofit called The Pad Project that supports menstrual equity in communities abroad that lack access to and education about feminine hygiene products.

While The Pad Project focused its film narrative on the Indian village of Hapur and its neighboring communities, the team intends to address menstrual equity issues closer to home, too. “[American] women in lower socio-economic areas don’t attend school just like in countries around the world when they don’t have access to pads,” said producer Melissa Berton in an interview with People.

CNN Poverty Project Menstural
CNN Poverty Project Menstrual

To begin to understand the toll that menstrual inequity can take on women, check out CNN’s “period poverty” calculator. The program tallies up how many days of work, school, or other obligations you’d have missed over the entirety of your reproductive lifetime if you stayed home because you weren’t able to access period products. (My total was over eight and a half years’ worth of my life.)  

A report published last month found that more than half of the women in St. Louis shelters had been unable to afford menstrual hygiene products at least once over an 8-month period, while about 20 percent encountered this issue each month. As an alternative to using tampons and pads, some of these women reported using rags, old fabric, toilet paper and paper towels, and even children’s diapers as improvised period products. “Period products are usually around $7 to $10 per month. For some people, that can be a few meals,” a menstrual equity advocate explained to Newsweek. “Also, food stamps and other similar financial assistance programs do not help to cover period products as a necessity, and things like the ‘tampon tax’ don’t help either.” About half of the women included in the St. Louis study reported having to choose between buying food or feminine products, a decision that no one should be forced to make.

Menstrual Inequity in Prison

Female inmates carry perhaps the heaviest burden of menstrual inequity in the United States. Until recently, feminine hygiene products were not treated as a basic human necessity in any prison. Instead, tampons and pads were often sold and priced like luxuries, and were not necessarily readily available. A piece published last week in Mother Jones cited the inflated prices of these products at a California county jail: Tampax tampons cost 56 cents a pop for inmates, though someone outside of prison can buy them on Amazon for 19 cents. Some of the prisons cited in the article provided pads to their inmates at no charge, but the free pads were so bad that they were practically useless. Inmates reported being penalized for bleeding through their uniforms.

There is a bright spot for menstrual equity in the criminal justice system: Congress’s most recent bipartisan legislation for prison reform, The First Step Act, includes provisions that require federal prisons to provide feminine products like sanitary pads and tampons at no charge to inmates. The law doesn’t apply to anything but federal prisons so its benefit to the criminal justice system is limited to federal inmates. Getting state and county prisons to provide free period products to their inmates will require you to engage in politics and advocacy at the local level.

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