By Taylor MarkeyIf you are one of the 86% of women who have been caught without a tampon or pad at the beginning of your period, you know that it can be an uncomfortable and annoying experience. But, for many people (women, transgender men, and genderqueer people alike), this experience is more than annoying; for those who cannot afford supplies, it can be debilitating. Because tampons and pads are not covered by public assistance programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—low-income people are often compelled to break the law by selling their food stamps to afford these necessities. In many prisons, the prices of tampons and pads are inflated, making them difficult to obtain for inmates who don’t receive money from outside. For women who are homeless, lack of access to feminine hygiene products (and the lack of awareness of the need for such products) often means that they go without them.
Inability to access tampons and pads increases the risk of many vaginal infections and may force people to miss opportunities such as school, work, or employment interviews. There is also an emotional toll when a person cannot maintain basic cleanliness, leading to feelings of alienation and lack of dignity. The denial of access under SNAP or WIC not only to tampons and pads, but to diapers, soap, toilet paper, and other hygiene items, has come to be seen as another way in which the cycle of poverty is institutionalized. Because SNAP and WIC have clearly defined missions of feeding the hungry and have been unfortunately framed by politicians as “entitlements,” any expansion of these programs to non-food items would likely be faced with intense political resistance.
This is why Legal Voice was excited to learn that our long-time supporter Kate Beck had set out to collect 50,000 pads and tampons for her 50th birthday to help meet the need in our community. Our staff and board members joined together to collect 520 tampons and pads for Mary’s Place and YouthCare in Seattle. We encourage you to match our efforts by making a donation of tampons or pads to your local shelter. (And be sure to track Kate’s progress on her campaign page.)
Donation drives like Kate’s have sprung up across the country, providing a critical immediate solution for many people. But we cannot allow this to be simply a passing trend. It is time to advocate for a long-term policy solution to supplement these efforts and ensure that low-income individuals have access to the feminine hygiene products they need.
This issue is often misleadingly framed as primarily a problem for women in the developing world; we have all heard the heart-wrenching stories of young African girls who miss school during menstruation or Indian women who are shamed for using tampons because of insertion taboos. But this narrative obfuscates how much of a problem access to basic reproductive care is for women in our own country, particularly for women of color. It also ignores the strides that people in developing nations have made on this issue without foreign intervention. For example, India’s government targets subsidies of pads to poor rural areas, while many Western governments continue to tax feminine hygiene as a “luxury.”
In the US, some state government officials have proposed removing sales taxes from tampons and pads. This is an important first step, but state governments should actively subsidize these items as well. Employers are required under OSHA guidelines to provide hand towels and soap in employee restrooms; they should be required to provide tampons and pads for sale as well, and encouraged to provide them for free, to create a comfortable workplace environment for people of all genders. Laws requiring tampons and pads to be available at no charge in prisons should also be passed and enforced to stop prisons from using restricted access to hygiene and reproductive health as a punishment.
For incarcerated people, important first steps have been made through litigation. A class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates in the Jefferson County Jail in Washington resulted in a favorable settlement, requiring jail officials to follow the state law directing prisons to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge. Another similar case in Michigan right now is seeking feminine hygiene access, and the removal of other degrading living conditions, arguing that prisoners’ constitutional and human rights have been violated. The framing of these legal arguments is part of a larger movement to expand the notion of “human rights” to include a right to cleanliness and dignity. This movement arose from a growing awareness that people cannot succeed in modern society if they do not have access to basic hygiene.
For the non-working, non-incarcerated poor, policy and litigation-based solutions are less obvious. As is too often the case, those who are most marginalized are not part of programs or institutions that can be easily affected by regulation or legal change. This is perhaps why many feminists have suggested that tampons and pads should be completely free. Although this suggestion takes the idea of tampons and pads as a human right to its logical conclusion, it is politically and logistically infeasible and would over-include people who can easily afford tampons. For the most marginalized among us, local, grassroots efforts are probably the best way of increasing access. Perhaps organizations like Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics, particularly those which are highly integrated into low-income communities, could be given federal funding designated for purchasing and distributing feminine hygiene products, mirroring successful programs that have increased condom use.
In addition to advocating for policy changes, we can all be a part of the solution by asking for tampons and pads to be provided in our workplaces and schools, by including these products in our collection efforts for homeless and domestic violence shelters, and by questioning the culture of silence that surrounds menstruation, which allows this problem to persist.
Taylor Markey is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at The George Washington University Law School. She is a recipient of the QLaw Foundation’s Sher Kung Memorial Grant for her LGBT advocacy work and is not-so-secretly obsessed with boy bands.