It’s time for us to address period poverty
One of the great things I love about my job is the occasional sparks of inspiration which come from our amazing volunteers. Also, sometimes our volunteers push me a little outside my own comfort zone, and I am grateful for that. This article will describe one such instance, where two young volunteers, who happen to be young ladies, pushed a middle aged, middle class, white male (me!) to be just a little bit uncomfortable, and grow in the process. These two volunteers, Emily and Rachel, started talking about installing a “period pantry” in our community. What they want to do is to find a way to create greater access to feminine hygiene products for low-income girls and young women in our community. Well, I am going to be honest here and say that, embarrassingly, this simple concept, and the solution it represents to some very deep problems, caught me like a thunderbolt, so I thought this month it would be worthwhile to talk a little about period poverty in our community.
For those who don’t know, period poverty refers to the inability to afford some of the basic supplies which are needed for women when menstruating. Many of us might take it for granted that these supplies are readily available and affordable, but the truth is that items like pads and tampons are quite expensive, especially for those who might be struggling to afford other basics. Compounding the expense of period supplies is the fact that these aren’t covered by programs such as WIC or SNAP (which you might know of as food stamps). It’s common knowledge that things like tobacco and alcohol cannot be purchased with SNAP, but did you know that you can’t purchase tampons, either? Further compounding the issue is stigma. To this day, there is great social stigma around menstruation. Even though this is a normal biological process which effects literally half our global population, many cultures stigmatize menstruation, and of course poverty is stigmatized, too.
What’s the result? Well, many girls who cannot afford and don’t have easy access to period products will end up doing things which are either unproductive or unhealthy. That could include using alternate products, like stuffing toilet paper or a sock in their panties or skipping classes and staying home when they are having their period. I decided to test this theory out and asked several my friends who work in education locally and to my surprise, they all had cases they knew of which mirrored exactly what I just stated: girls will do unhealthy things, use alternate products, or skip school if they don’t have easy access to period supplies.
In fact, in a recent nationwide survey of 1,000 teens ages 13-19, id was found that 1 in 5 girls reported struggling to afford period products and 4 in 5 either missed class time themselves or knew somebody who had because they didn’t have access to feminine hygiene products. That’s in the US. HERE! Of course, the situation is worse in other parts of the world, but even in our own backyard, this can be a serious issue.
For a few years we’ve had legislation on the books in New Hampshire which has mandated make period products available to girls in middle and high school. Unfortunately, however, this legislation is now being revisited as an “unfunded mandate” and is being reviewed to be amended to make it much more up to the schools to do this if they can, but not be required to do so in a strict sense of the word. Now I understand that schools are cash strapped and must prioritize their budgets and expenditures, but that said can you imagine if schools didn’t pay for toilet paper and soap, or provide meals for low-income kids who couldn’t afford it? You can probably imagine the effects, not only physical health but also emotional well-being. I hope our legislature can figure out a way to partner with schools to continue making period products available. But that’s only part of the picture, and it brings me back to our volunteers and their period pantry.
Their idea, which I will fully support, and our organization will back, is to create a pantry which is accessible to girls and young women who need and cannot otherwise afford period products. We will work to find a way to fundraise and get community donations to keep the pantry stocked, much like we have done with our Little Free Food Pantry in French Hill or our 15 Little Free Libraries around town. We are already talking with our friends over at Girls Inc. as the likely location for the pantry. Once the pantry itself is in place and operational, our goal will be to expand the access to include other partners who work with low-income youth in our community. This could include everything from Stepping Stones to the Adult Learning Center. Beyond that, we would like to make sure that we can maintain a good and stable source of period products for other partners who work with low-income families and individuals, which could include partners like Greater Nashua Mental Health or the local food pantries.
I know this sounds like quite an ambitious project, so just to make sure we were on the right path, I threw some of these thoughts out to my trusted partners in our Youth Homelessness Committee, and again the response I got was a very resounding statement that this is truly a community need which hasn’t been systematically addressed. All of this because two volunteers, one who had been a Girls Inc Girl, and one who has begun working with at risk teens, got inspired and shared their spark of enthusiasm, which turned into an idea and then a plan, and which I’m certain will also become a reality. If you are interested in getting involved with us in helping to address period poverty in our community, please reach out to me or one of my colleagues at United Way. We can certainly use the help! Truly, I am grateful to our brilliant volunteers, who continue to inspire me and remind me that GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WE LIVE UNITED.
Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.