Coronavirus has made period poverty an even bigger issue

This World Menstrual Hygiene Day, let's call on governments to recognise just how essential period products are – during the pandemic and always.

by Sara Radin
28 May 2020, 2:00pm

still from Netflix's Big Mouth

Period products are a basic human need for anyone who menstruates. Yet period poverty -- a lack of menstrual supplies that impacts a person’s daily life, causing some to use toilet paper, tissues or socks in lieu of proper products -- affects more than one in five low-income women in the United States on a monthly basis, according to Reuters. Although stigma around periods still remains, a number of researchers, organisers and small business owners say period poverty is a global public health crisis that most governments are failing to properly address. And now, with the blow of COVID-19, the problem is only becoming greater.

“People need period products more than they did before because stores are selling out,” says Nadya Okamoto, author of Period Power and the founder of Period, a youth-powered nonprofit fighting to end period poverty and period stigma globally through service, education, and advocacy. “People don’t recognise period products as necessities. Donations to shelters have been declining so we’ve started providing them to any service provider that requests them, which isn’t something we did before this.” The organisation, which has over 800 campus chapters in all 50 states and 40 countries, has sent out approximately two million units of products during the pandemic.

Other organisations are also accelerating their efforts. The Alliance for Period Supplies says the increase in demand has been tremendous with one of its programs distributing over 35,000 products in response to the COVID outbreak in a two week period, which is typically what they provide in three months. Since the pandemic, the organisation has increased distribution and safety precautions, getting products to students during school meal pickups and coordinating drop-offs at coronavirus testing centres. Thanks to its partnership with U by Kotex, the nonprofit has been able to donate an extra million products to help meet the increased need.

Two high school juniors from Queens in New York, Nicole Soret and Mya Abdelwahab, recently founded Femstrate. The duo are currently working to reduce period poverty through two different approaches: First, they’ve petitioned the city and its Department of Education to distribute menstrual products at 211 of its Mealhub Sites across the city’s five boroughs. Second, they’re partnering with four local distribution sites to bring menstrual products to people in need.

With schools closed and more people filing for unemployment (in April the unemployment rate in New York grew from 4.1% to 14.5%), the pair say it makes sense that the demand for period products has increased, particularly for students who usually get their period products through their school thanks to legislation New York passed in 2018. “Many state governments (46 states) still do not require schools and prisons to provide free period products, not to mention the tampon tax, but for now, New York is slowly pushing forward to provide these products, and we hope that our initiative will inspire other cities and states to follow in New York City’s footsteps,” they explain.

The co-founders tell i-D that the New York City Department of Education is only supplying these products until their supply runs out. Accordingly, Femstrate are looking to partner with companies to keep sites stocked with pads and tampons for the rest of quarantine. After the pandemic is over, they hope New York City will begin giving out free period products during the summer months through its summer meal distribution program.

Bunny and Taran Ghatora, sisters and co-founders who run Blume, say: “We couldn’t help but notice that the shelves for pads and tampons have completely cleared, similar to the panic buying of toilet paper, especially in the beginning weeks of this pandemic.” In March, the Vancouver-based company, which makes self-care products using non-toxic, vegan, and cruelty-free ingredients, prioritised the urgent need for period products, especially for those who may not be able to purchase them in excess and accelerated the launch of their new organic pads and tampons while jumpstarting an initiative in which they donate a box of tampons for every box sold.

While New Zealand reportedly has under 2000 cases and just over 20 deaths, period nonprofit The Good Fund has seen a huge increase in corona-related applications with many applicants stating job loss or income reduction. “We have helped over 100 people in this time, with 70 applications in a day when this organisation was shared on a local Facebook page,” says co-founder Emily Holdaway. Thankfully coronavirus didn't have a big impact on its operating procedures, as applications are done via email, and their products are sent from a warehouse that was classed as an 'essential service' and therefore has continued operating.

“We offer reusable period products to anyone who needs help. We do this because we want the help we give to be sustainable for both people and planet,” says Emily. “Periods are not a one off event -- they happen every month, and by offering reusable options we empower people to manage their periods not just once, but over and over for up to eight years depending what product they choose to receive.”

“In the UK, the government has started to supply schools but unfortunately now that children are out of school, there are so many going without [period products] and this has been a real problem,” says Gabby Edlin, founder of Bloody Good Period. “The government really needs to step up and realise that this isn't just something that's a cosmetic or luxury item. It's really important that this becomes something that's taken care of by the government because it's a human right to be able to take care of yourself and to be able to be healthy.”

Beyond the increase in demand, new data is also painting a clearer picture of the real impact the situation is having on those who menstruate. Research conducted by global children’s charity Plan International UK has found that during lockdown 30% of girls have struggled to afford or access period products while 54% have used toilet paper as an alternative to period products. 20% of those surveyed said their periods have been harder to manage due to the lack of toilet paper available. Moreover, the study found that many of those surveyed didn’t know where to get products or who to ask, and were too embarrassed to seek out a source of free products.

“We have heard so much about access to toilet roll in this pandemic, but we have heard little about girls and young women being left without period products -- even though they too are absolutely essential,” says Nikki Giant, Strategy and Development Manager at Plan International UK. “Lockdown has exacerbated the already prevalent problem of period poverty in the UK, and we have heard from girls we work with from Kenya to Nepal that this is being reflected across the globe.”

Another thing that should be considered is the way the lockdown will impact those who are just starting their periods and don’t have adequate support systems at home. With this in mind, the nonprofit has launched a digital community supported by The Body Shop where individuals can safely share, discuss and find support.

With period poverty escalating and the arrival of World Menstrual Hygiene Day, a day dedicated to global advocacy around making periods safe for everyone, there’s no time like the present for legislators and businesses to recognise the severity of this situation. “We prefer to call it Menstrual Health Day, first of all, because obviously periods aren't dirty, so we want to try and remove that aspect of it,” says Bloody Good Period's Gabby. The group’s latest campaign is all about the language used around menstruation and why it's so important to use proper terminology in order to destigmatise periods, including more inclusive language since women and girls aren’t the only ones who menstruate.

As the world continues to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19, the need for quality education around menstruation and the provision of accessible and sustainable period products is only set to grow. Coronavirus has shown that more money must be pumped into this sector to allow people to take care of their basic needs. “In the past few months there has definitely been a much better understanding of how essential this kind of product is and how it will enable people to live their lives with dignity and how they should be able to access these products even within a restricted environment,” says Gabby.

“This is a time when people are really thinking about what are necessities. What is essential work? What are essential needs? What are essential products? I think with the idea of survival and our most basic needs, it’s a conversation that’s been really highlighted, which is something we’ve been talking about since our founding five years ago,” says Nadya of Period Power. “This idea that menstrual products are basic necessities is really coming to light right now.”

period poverty