The Economics of Menstruation
Happy Women’s History Month! This month, my blog will focus on issues that specifically affect women and their financial futures. This particular week, I’m talking about periods. If any guys are reading, I’m not sorry! Menstruation is a normal (and essential) process that affects most people with uteruses at some point in their lives, oftentimes for up to 40 years! But just because menstruation is a naturally occurring process doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still result in financial trouble for women and girls. This piece will review those issues and then lay out some ways that you can help.
Menstruation Products Cost Money
As with most things, menstruation products (also called feminine hygiene products), such as pads, tampons, period panties, and menstrual cups cost money. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people have a hard time affording or getting access to these necessary products. Low-income women, especially, are struck by this hardship.
According to Groundswell, “the average woman spends about $120 per year on pads and tampons and an additional $20 each year on over-the-counter medication to combat cramps and other period-related side effects. Women on average menstruate for 40 years (taking into account that some women have children), so each woman spends approximately $5,600 on her period over her lifetime.” That’s a lot of money that a lot of people don’t have regular access to throughout their lives. In fact, for one in eight women living below the poverty line in the United States, affording menstrual products is an problem.
Products such as menstrual cups (Diva Cup, Mooncup, Lunette, MeLuna, and more) and period panties (Thinx, Sustain, and more) are reusable and they last longer, so even though they cost more upfront, they may save money over time. The menstrual cup can also be a safer alternative to tampons, as there isn’t a risk for toxic shock syndrome.
To add insult to injury, in some places, feminine hygiene products are taxed as “luxury items”. This means that women are required to pay sales tax on these products, even though they are essential. As you know, women are not able to control their periods, so they need tampons and pads to get through the day while they are menstruating. Luckily, after much activism and protest, several states have begun to exempt feminine hygiene products from taxation. As of November 2018, ten states had done so.
Access Is Not Always a Given
Around the world, only 12 percent of young people with periods have access to the products they need.
You may think that the United States is not one of the places where women do not have access to menstrual products. You’d be wrong! In fact, 50,000 homeless women in the United States don’t have proper access to menstrual hygiene. Incarcerated women don’t have it much better. In 2015, the Correctional Association of New York published a study about reproductive injustice for menstruators in New York state prisons. The results found that 54 percent of menstruators in prisons have insufficient period care supplies, and the access they do have don’t meet their needs.
Why do incarcerated women need access to free menstrual products? Because if they are working in prison, they are often making less than a dollar a day, so it would take days or weeks to save up enough money to purchase these products for themselves. Plus it’s a matter of human dignity to have access to the products that allow you to get through life.
In 2016, New York became the first city to require free tampons and sanitary pads in correctional facilities, public schools, and homeless shelters. In August 2017, women in federal prisons were given access to free tampons (regular and super size), pads (regular, maxi, and super size with wings), and pantyliners (regular). However, the majority of incarcerated women are actually housed in state and local prisons, so this rule does not apply to them. Some states are beginning to follow New York’s lead by guaranteeing free feminine hygiene products to inmates.
Products Aren’t Always Safe
As I mentioned above, some products can cause infections that lead to serious conditions like toxic shock syndrome. In addition to that, a lot of menstrual products are filled with chemicals that we don’t necessarily understand. Oftentimes, companies aren’t even required to disclose what they put into these products. And your pads and tampons? They don’t always come naturally white, they are often bleached. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of putting bleach inside my body.
Plus, lack of access to these products can lead to the reuse of products that shouldn’t be reused. This is especially true for incarcerated and homeless women. Not having enough to get through the month means that women are forced to reuse products, making them unsanitary and unsafe. The economic effects of this are obvious, as medical attention would be necessary in the case of infection or disease.
Menstruation Causes Girls to Miss School
Menstruation negatively affects educational access across much of the globe. Menstruation affects educational access across much of the globe: more than 20 percent of girls in Sierra Leone miss school during their periods. In Nepal and Afghanistan, 30 percent do. Almost 25 percent of Indian girls drop out of school when they start menstruating and those who don’t miss on average five days a month. In Africa, one in ten adolescent girls miss school during their period.
Of course, it isn’t menstruating alone that causes girls to miss school. It’s the inability to access menstrual products. It’s inadequate access to bathroom facilities at school. It’s the ongoing taboo and shame that exists around menstruation. All of these things make it so that girls are not receiving the education that they deserve.
Interrupted or incomplete educations don’t only affect young girls themselves, but it impacts entire communities. According to the World Bank, a woman’s future earnings grow with every extra year of education. Plus, when a girl receives education, she marries later, has fewer, healthier children and is less likely to experience sexual violence. Adequate education improves individual lives, communities, and the world.
These are just some of the reasons that menstruation impacts women’s financial well-being. It is also a basic human right to have access to the things that your body needs. And obviously, feminine hygiene products are something menstruating people need once a month for more than half their lives.
What Should We (As a Society) Do?
Make menstruation products available to all, for free.
Create safer feminine hygiene products that can be easily sanitized and reused.
Break the taboo of menstruation.
What Can You Do?
Donate products to local women’s shelters, VA hospitals, prisons, and other similar places.
Donate money to organizations working to provide products and/or end the stigma.
Check out the short film Period. End of Sentence. It’s on Netflix and it won best documentary at the Oscars this year. It follows women in India fighting the stigma around periods.
Organizations to Support:
More Safe Products: