Students should have access to menstrual supplies. Period.

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“I have to miss school next week because I’m on my period; I don’t have the money to buy supplies, and the shelter and the school don’t. I was shocked at what my 13 year old patient had to say.

I am a pediatrician and my colleagues and I provide medical care in family shelters as part of our institution’s partnership with shelters in the Philadelphia area. It was no reason to miss the school I had ever considered.

I was able to have sanitary napkins shipped to the shelter for my patient and I asked the social work manager of our partnership if she had encountered this situation with other residents of the shelter; she confirmed it was too common. “Period products are expensive and shelters depend on donations to provide products to their residents. Most people don’t think about giving pads and tampons.

October 9 is Day of action of the period, an international call to action to end menstrual poverty or lack of access to menstrual products. More 500 million menstruating adults and children worldwide do not have access to menstrual products. The United States is also plagued by menstrual poverty. A large study in St. Louis found that about 67% of menstruating adults of low socioeconomic status are unable to routinely afford menstrual supplies; almost half said they were forced to choose between buying food and period products. Adults living in shelters cite a lack of menstrual products as a barrier to attend job interviews.

“I have to miss school next week because I’m on my period; I don’t have the money to buy supplies, and the shelter and the school don’t. I was shocked at what my 13 year old patient had to say.

Teens also experience menstrual poverty at extremely high rates, with 1 in 4 American teens reporting having struggled to afford vintage products and 1 in 5 teenage girls say they missed school because they couldn’t afford menstrual supplies they need. Education and employment are essential to break the cycle of poverty; lack of affordable access to period products hampers the progress of children and adults.

Menstrual poverty exacerbates existing health disparities it has a disproportionate impact on black and Latin children and adults– and it can make you sick. Lack of access to menstrual products can lead to the use of products during inappropriate periods, which is a known risk factor for the development of menstrual toxic shock syndrome, a fatal disease, as well as urinary tract infections.

Why does menstrual poverty exist in a country where commodities are plentiful? Menstrual products are expensive, and in 27 states, they are taxed. To make matters worse, menstrual products are not covered by federally funded initiatives to fight poverty such as WIC (women, infants and children) and BREAK (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program), which means that people living in poverty have no support to buy these products. In most states (including Pennsylvania), essential safety nets, including schools and shelters, are neither needed nor funded to provide menstrual supplies.

Tackling menstrual poverty is a fundamental step in breaking the cycle of poverty and ensuring equitable access to education and employment. Policy makers must act by:

      1. Pass the Pennsylvania Menstrual Health Equity Act (SB 956), which would force schools, colleges, shelters, agencies providing food and housing assistance, correctional facilities, and local, state and federal government programs supporting people of low socioeconomic status to provide products free disposable menstruals in all toilets. Lilly’s bill would require all schools to provide products of at least two absorbances.
      2. Pass legislation allowing WIC and SNAP to be used to purchase menstrual products; Illinois has already taken this step, and we can encourage our representatives in Congress to do the same.
      3. End the “tampon tax” or the sales tax on menstrual products. You can see if your state tax period provides here and contact your Congress representative. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has taken this step!

In addition to encouraging our legislators to implement the policies outlined above, we can all make a difference by donating menstrual products to local shelters and supporting organizations that provide products to people in Philadelphia who cannot afford them.

My patient courageously sharing her experience with me has impacted hundreds of menstruating adolescents and adults. On this Menstrual Day of Action, I hope she can similarly inspire us all to do our part to end menstrual poverty.


Rebecca Whitmire is a Pediatric Resident Physician.

The Citizen welcomes comments from community members which state to the best of their ability that they are factual and non-defamatory.


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