- As I organized distribution drives of sanitary hygiene products, I realized negative connotations behind menstruation run deeper than an inability to access affordable, or even free products.
Inaccessibility to sanitary hygiene products is an issue that impacts marginalized and vulnerable populations all over the world. Having observed this societal issue for quite a while, I realized that global health crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbates the impact, subjecting marginalized and homeless populations to unprecedented menstrual poverty.
To address the issue, I started a chapter of the PERIOD movement. The primary values of my work are founded on the idea that menstruation products should be accessible, cheap, and that a person should never have to compromise on other necessities such as food, or shelter, in order to receive this form of vital healthcare. However, I find that the negative connotations behind menstruation run deeper than an inability to access affordable, or even free products.
Such inequalities exist as a consequence of the larger societal shame we have placed around menstruation, which is experienced by a substantial part of our population that we have historically kept away from the limelight. This is why constraints such as the rising cost of sanitary hygiene products, make it so that these products have been commodified as more of a luxury rather than a necessity. Nevertheless, in my pursuit to bring this form of healthcare to my community, I began local sanitary product distribution drives in soup kitchens, food pantries, and food drives.
After having spent time at a local soup kitchen as part of my drive, setting up boxes of pads and tampons for routine customers to take alongside their meals, I pondered what else I could do to reach out to more people and make my initiative more fruitful. In an attempt to understand this issue better, I realized just how few women came to the soup kitchen in general. No more than a quarter of the establishment’s visitors were women, and even then, some of them were visibly hesitant to ask for a handout in the form of menstrual essentials. I wondered if there was any element of stigma involved, as some of the women appeared to find it difficult to approach and acknowledge that I was passing out menstruation products. This timidity is perhaps caused by an underlying embarrassment that follows period poverty.
However, during one of my most recent distribution drives, things became a bit more optimistic as I gave out approximately 250 product packages to families who came to collect food boxes at a local food pantry. As I passed out products with a great sense of altruism and fulfillment, I couldn’t help but notice how much the need for sanitary products has affected a comparatively wider segment of our population. The patrons at the food pantry helped me realize how deeply entrenched the problem is and how it impacts the general population, including people who are either homeless, or lived in conditions below the poverty line. Experiences drawn from different types of establishments and drives has given me first-hand experience of the severity of this issue, and what we need to do as a society to serve the people who need menstrual products the most.
My service has allowed me to materialize and reinforce the values my chapter is based upon. Families that are impacted often have to compromise on necessities in order to buy sanitary hygiene products. In hindsight, this tradeoff seems simply preposterous, and makes me even more determined to distribute products to communities of varied socioeconomic statuses, because period poverty is an incredibly universal issue that affects many alike. With this mindset, I envision myself reaching out to as many places as I can, because access to period products remains a privilege in the status quo. It’s time for this to change.
Besides service, an emphasis on advocacy and education also allows for nuanced discussions regarding the consequences of menstruation shame. As I bring my table of sanitary products to more places, this opens up opportunities to teach others about my mission, and about the product access issue that has never been given enough attention. This way, the negative themes surrounding menstruation slowly disappear, and reveal the ability for society to reconstruct how we view this form of healthcare as a serious issue that needs numerous forms of remediation. Whether it be the subsidization of products, or more comprehensive menstruation health curriculums in education, small steps can be taken to help alleviate this problem.
I feel that a certain power exists when I place boxes of pads and tampons on my table, eager to give them away. Similarly, destigmatization also lies in the actions of people around me who help me package products for my distribution or, hand out products alongside myself. However, it may take more than my table to chip away at the societal “shackles” placed on menstruation. Through a combination of service, and advocacy, the importance of these actions lie in having products be visible for all to see, in juxtaposition to societal standards.
We need a collective effort to ensure that menstrual hygiene is seen and addressed as an important healthcare issue, and sanitary products are accessible to anyone and everyone who needs them without having to compromise on other necessities. Having distributed approximately 6,000 products already, I realize that this effort must be continuous. We all need to come together to end period poverty.
Siya Sharma is an incoming freshman at UCLA. She is the founder of the Santa Clara chapter of the PERIOD movement. She is interested in public health and is working towards initiatives to make healthcare more accessible to her community.