As COVID-19 uncovers period poverty, legislators must work to address it

By: Elizabeth Cupolo

The COVID-19 virus unmasks the underlying issue of period poverty the inability to afford or access menstrual products. Those who experience period poverty will be forced to endure life without these basic, yet critical menstrual hygiene necessities. 

Prior to the pandemic, those who experience menstrual inequity were forced to resort to unhygienic methods of maintaining their periods. They will continue to do so through quarantine and once we return to “normal.” Lack of menstrual products and support at a young age can lead to fatal health consequences, lost educational opportunities, and shame surrounding menstruation throughout a menstruator’s life. 

PERIOD. is an organization working to end period poverty and stigma through service, education and advocacy. PERIOD. chapters across Michigan have been working tirelessly and have amped up their mobilization to donate menstrual products to shelters, food pantry services and individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Michigan Menstrual Product Accessibility Coalition demands our state legislators end period poverty by extending access to free period products in all schools. 

As a PERIOD chapter leader in Michigan, I know period poverty is a public health crisis that has a profoundly negative impact on all people with periods. Having no access to menstrual products in school restrooms can lead to lost educational opportunities. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, an estimated 41% of children in Michigan, age six or older, live in low-income families, while 21% live in poverty. The percentage of those individuals who also menstruate are the most economically vulnerable. Subsequently, one in five students in the United States who live in poverty, misses school due to a lack of access to menstrual products, as noted in a study by the ACLU. A study by Plan International UK found that 68 percent of those surveyed reported being distracted from their school work because of their period. 

Missing school because of lack of adequate period products can put menstruators at a disadvantage compared to their non-menstruating counterparts. In an ALWAYS study of 1,500 menstruators affected by period poverty, more than a fifth feel they have been held back due to not being able to participate in extra-curricular activities. The same survey found that 22 percent believe they now lack teamwork skills and three in ten believe it affected their ability to socialize. 

Some educational institutions provide products in select places like the nurse's office, campus pantry, or health center. Students must use their limited time between classes or class time to reach these locations. Products must be provided in bathrooms to be accessible in urgent situations and to reduce the unfair amount of educational time lost. 

Lack of access to menstrual products can cause students to turn to alternative methods for menstrual hygiene management. By introducing substitutes (e.g. using toilet paper as a pad, using products longer than recommended), menstruators are at a higher risk of damaging health impacts such as Toxic Shock Syndrome, bacterial vaginosis, and bacterial STIs such as chlamydia, and also viruses like HIV and HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer), according to Dr. Anita Mitra, BSc(Hons) MBChB Ph.D. Victims of period poverty are also likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. 

While there is a longstanding political argument that providing free period products in schools and all public restrooms is not fiscally possible or responsible, the fact is that periods are not partisan — people have them across party lines. Simply put, menstruators deserve access to the products they need to manage natural bodily functions. When will we end the misclassification of menstrual products as luxury items instead of medical necessities? When will period products be free and accessible in every public restroom, just like toilet paper and soap? The highlighted studies show that period poverty put menstruators at a disadvantage. Not only during schooling but life in the workforce after. We must require Michigan legislators to address period poverty in Michigan communities. 

Concerned readers who are ready for change can sign the petition to support the provision of free menstrual products in school restrooms and state-owned buildings. It’s time to demand menstrual equity and create a more equitable world for every citizen. 


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