Toilet paper. Plastic bags. White restaurant napkins. Rags and shirts. Balled-up socks. Rinse it out, squeeze it out and dry it out. And re-use. Five to seven days a month, 12 months a year.
Menstruation, for most of us, tends to be an annoyance, accompanied by uncomfortable cramps, mood swings, bloating, etc. But for someone who is homeless, periods can be an embarrassment, a lost opportunity, a missed meal and a health risk. While we explore the advantages our privilege grants us, we tend to miss one we take for granted: the ability to have safe, hygienic periods.
According to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 39.7 percent of all homeless people in the U.S. are women. Fewer than 1 percent are either transgender or nonbinary. Even though there are a good number of people in those statistics who menstruate, menstruation and homelessness remain topics which many of us don’t talk about. Indeed, for most of us, getting our period is nothing more than an inconvenience: a brief search for a tampon in our backpack, an inquiry to a friend to “borrow” a pad or a trudge back to our rooms to get one while muttering about Yale College Council’s lack of execution in providing pads in all college bathrooms. But just because you can go out and buy these items, doesn’t mean that everyone has that same privilege, that same level of accessibility to these products.
Tampons and pads make up a multibillion dollar industry. Last year, U.S. consumers spent $3.1 billion on menstrual hygiene products alone. It is easy to see why this is so: The average cost of a pack of pads is $5.98 while that of a box of tampons is $7. This could add up to a financial burden of $70 or $90 of menstrual products bought per year. The cheapest box of tampons at Walgreens is around $7 -— that is more money than some people spend on food. You shouldn’t have to choose between a tampon and lunch. Being homeless is hard enough, but being a menstruator while being homeless comes with its own set of unique challenges.
Although women are overwhelmingly affected by poverty, most American programs designed to help low-income families — such as Medicaid; food stamps; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — classify pads and tampons as “luxury products” alongside pet food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. The issue of menstrual products being a necessity rather than a luxury has been brought into the spotlight with debates on the so-called “pink tax.” Just this summer, Connecticut voted to remove the tax on feminine hygiene products. But menstruating while homeless adds an additional layer of taboo that makes tackling this issue more challenging. People tend to donate food, blankets, clothes, socks and deodorant but tend to overlook pads and tampons, products that are in high demand in many women’s shelters. This demand is partly due to a lack of awareness and a lack of conversation around this topic, exacerbated by the stigma surrounding menstruation: It’s part of why we don’t consider giving period products away.
As a result, homeless menstruators tend to look toward cheaper, more accessible alternatives to pads and tampons to suffer through their periods with dignity. Tissue or toilet paper from public bathrooms, old T-shirts, socks, etc., are used as unhygienic replacements. Reused and rewashed clothing (often cleaned without soap) and prolonged timing of wearing pads or tampons can cause urinary tract infections, yeast infections and toxic shock syndrome, all of which can lead to kidney failure if not detected and treated in time. Moreover, lack of access to period products can lead to lost opportunities for jobs that can mean the difference between being on the street and being in a home. According to the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, a girl can miss an average of two and a half weeks of school each year due to periods. Increased absences lead to increased rates of dropping out. Above all, there is a matter of dignity: No menstruator deserves to feel unclean or embarrassed because of a bodily process they cannot control.
So, what can you do? You can sign and promote a petition to increase awareness about menstrual health equity. You can tweet about it, write an op-ed, or post on Instagram to elevate the dialogue around a once taboo topic. You can donate your extra pads and tampons to the local shelters or to the donation boxes that will be set up in residential colleges soon. You can come volunteer with Period at Yale, an organization that works with the national chapter to fundraise for and provide hygiene packs to Cloves and Fishes, which works on educating local high school students about menstrual health equity and reducing the stigma around periods. Every act helps — it is all activism, and it is all effective.
Aishwarya Bhattacharya is a sophomore in Pierson College and volunteers coordinator for Period at Yale. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .