What defines January better than making a solid resolution? On New Year’s Day 2015, I did just that. While sharing photos of my annual ritual—a “polar bear plunge” into the icy Atlantic—a Facebook post caught my eye. Two teens in my community were seeking donations of tampons and pads for a local food pantry after learning about the hidden plight of our own New Jersey neighbors. Girls and women were missing days of school and work—and dealing with shame—because they were unable to afford period products.
My reaction was visceral. A public interest lawyer by day, I was consumed with questions about the ways public policy—or lack thereof—could impact the millions who menstruate. How many women in America were living paycheck to paycheck (or without a paycheck at all, or in prison), unable to manage the costs or burden of having a period? And why would something that’s a basic biological fact for half the population be excluded from policy making—in this case, food pantry budgets?
I’ve been grappling with addressing these questions for the last five years—and what I’ve learned isn’t pretty.
The Cost of Having a Period in 2020
For the nearly one in five American teenagers who live in poverty, lack of menstrual products and support can lead to compromised health, lost classroom time, even disciplinary intervention. Those experiencing homelessness report isolation and infection caused by using tampons and pads for longer than recommended or by improvising with wadded toilet paper, paper bags, or newspapers. Incarcerated women and those held in detention—including the latest wave of girls separated from their families at the border—often must beg or bargain for basic hygiene needs, part of a degrading and dehumanizing power imbalance.
One of the many mind boggling problems here is that tampons and pads are ineligible for purchases made with public benefits like food stamps. They’re not classified as “necessities” to qualify for an exemption from sales tax in the vast majority of states, and they’re not covered by health insurance or Medicaid, or included in Flexible Spending Account allowances.
Worldwide, the cost of having a period is also high. In Sierra Leone and Rwanda, around 20 percent of girls are reported to miss school because of their period. In Iran, nearly half of girls are so lacking in accurate education about menstruation that they believe it to be a disease. In parts of Nepal, menstruating girls are temporarily exiled, sent to makeshift huts with no protection from the elements—a practice that results in deaths every year.
Thankfully, periods have gotten a lot of attention over the past five years. Women are throwing period parties and influential women like Meghan Markle are speaking up, joining a global cohort of activists. We’re fighting for better education around women’s bodies; for more affordable access to tampons, pads and menstrual cups; and against laws that make life more difficult for anyone with a period. And we’re making real change.
Since reading that Facebook post, one of the ways I’ve been putting my lawyerly skills to use is to end the “tampon tax.” For years, menstrual products have not been exempt from sales tax (while a dizzying array of items, ranging from fruit snacks to gun ammo to erectile dysfunction pills go tax free). Kenya blazed the trail on this issue, scrapping the national tax on menstrual products in 2004 and more recently, activists have won victories in Australia, Canada, India and Germany. A massive petition and campaign in England even forced the issue into negotiations over Brexit. In the U.S., thirty-two states have introduced legislation and eight have succeeded in permanently ending the tampon tax. (As of January 1, California has joined the list, but only temporarily until July 2023.)