If you are someone who gets a period, you probably respond to your monthly reminder that you are not pregnant, with annoyance. Periods do not discriminate: they surprise you at home, at school, at work, no matter the time of day (or your outfit). However, when you are homeless, periods also threaten your feeling of dignity, your health and your limited resources.
You may have been surprised last month to learn that federal prisons in the U.S. were required, for the first time, to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge. For so long, inmates who had periods had to choose, with the few cents on the dollar they made for their work, whether to call their children or purchase adequate feminine hygiene products.
If products weren’t provided to those incarcerated by the federal government, what about those housed in homeless shelters? You guessed it! The government does not provide sanitary hygiene products to homeless shelters and these shelters run solely based on donations for these products. The LA Times reported that feminine hygiene products are among “the most requested items at food pantries and homeless shelters — but organizations rarely have enough pads, tampons and liners to meet the needs of their clients.”
For homeless people, a lack of access to sanitary products has direct effects on their health. Many people improvise by using toilet paper and paper towels as makeshift pads and tampons, but these paper based products found in public restrooms are often already soiled, as so many people pass through public restrooms, touching toilet paper and paper towels with dirty hands. Kylyssa Shay, who experienced homelessness during her youth, describes what this can mean for your health and human dignity. She describes being forced to choose between food and sanitary products, feeling unclean due to lack of access to a shower, and how the pain of headaches and cramps are worsened by the lack of sleep many homeless people face.
Women, who are the largest group of people impacted by periods, are more likely to live in poverty than men.
With lack of resources comes harder decisions. Imagine having to choose between dinner and pads or tampons. For young girls and transgender boys living in poverty, facing the already tough transition into puberty is even harder, as they lack access to basic products. Even schools are not required to provide sanitary products to students, leaving children forced to create makeshift products in their middle or high school bathrooms.
This is more than an inconvenience or minor difficulty. The problem of lack of access to basic health products is a matter of human dignity and health. Although toilet paper is free in any public bathroom and condoms are free in many places, pads and tampons are not, making it clear that our leadership is not concerned with the well-being of people with uteruses.
So where do we even start? A first step is simply electing more women and others who have periods into office. More representation of people with periods means more people with power who care about period-related issues. Pads and tampons should be free, or at least tax-free, and we must continue to elect those who agree.
Next, donate! No matter where you live, there is bound to be a homeless shelter nearby, one that is most likely in dire need of sanitary products. Start a drive at your school or in you community. If you are involved with a community organization, bring this issue up and see what ideas your group may have. Donating one or a couple of boxes of sanitary products makes a huge difference.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk about this issue! Talking about periods may seem embarrassing and unnecessary to most, but many people are not donating pads or tampons because they are either embarrassed or not aware of this issue! People should not be denied access to basic sanitary products simply because people are uncomfortable with the words “period,” “pad,” and “tampon!”