Taniya Bennett made it through the early stages of the pandemic. But as protests started in June in response to the killing of George Floyd, she was running out of pads for her period. When pharmacies in Philadelphia were boarded up due to looting, she knew she couldn’t afford the pricier products at the corner store.
Bennett, 19, has had her period since she was 9 years old. Her flow is heavy and can regularly last as long as two to three weeks. She lives with her 16-year-old sister, Tyreanna, and their mother, Lakisha. Their household can go through 20 thick, purple pads in three days. While a pack might cost $5 or $6 at a pharmacy, Bennett said she always needs a $10 bill at the corner store.
“Period poverty is a health disparity in our community,” said Lynette Medley, founder of the nonprofit No More Secrets: Mind Body Spirit, an organization that raises awareness about the spectrum of sexual health issues and distributes menstrual products directly to families in need.
“If people have to stand in line for food, it’s the same population that would need menstrual hygiene supplies,” she said.
Period poverty isn’t new: Menstrual hygiene products aren’t covered by national food stamp programs and are subject to sales tax in 30 states, excluded from the list of essential items exempt from taxes like food and medication. But the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn that followed have only exacerbated the problem, leaving marginalized populations who were already struggling to afford menstrual products at even more of a loss.
“This pandemic, again, is proving that pads and tampons are an essential product, and that they’re not luxury product,” said Nina Sarhan, a leader at PERIOD, another group that distributes supplies and pushes for legislative action.
As store shelves emptied, Sarhan had the opposite problem: 30,000 pads, tampons, and other menstrual products overflowing in her kitchen, donations from a monthslong holiday drive. With her stock, she was able to mobilize quickly when the pandemic hit, distributing thousands of pads and tampons across the country to anyone who filled out a form on the PERIOD website.
The requests haven’t stopped. Nonprofit organizations that distribute free menstrual products say they have been flooded with need since the pandemic began. I Support The Girls, an organization with 50 U.S. and four international affiliates, reported a 35% increase in requests for products since the start of the pandemic. No More Secrets, which is based in Philadelphia and distributes products nationally, has increased its distribution from 80 people per week to about 200.
The Bennett family has struggled before to afford the hygiene products they need. Even when they had food stamp assistance through Electronics Benefits Transfer, Taniya Bennett remembers using tissues instead of pads, or borrowing products one or two at a time from friends and family. In school, she would layer three pairs of shorts and underwear under her khaki uniform, and still bleed through.
Bennett said she often felt bad asking her mother for money to buy pads when she knew there were so many other bills to pay.
“You don’t want to keep asking. You just try to make the pad stretch,” she said.
As volunteer groups provide products to fill in the gaps, there has been one ray of hope in legislation. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act made menstrual products eligible to be covered by health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts. These accounts allocate pretax income to be used on health services and other important costs. The allowance isn’t perfect, according to many activists, who say the people who really need help don’t have access to jobs that offer these specialized accounts.
Medley said she believes that the exclusion of public assistance benefits from the menstruation legislation within the CARES Act highlights systemic racism in the health care system.
“That was not for impoverished communities, or women who were struggling,” said Medley. “It was for the haves, not the have-nots.”
Any real benefit of the CARES Act inclusion comes from the precedent it sets, said Sarhan. To have any mention of menstrual products in an emergency relief package shows that the products are important health necessities. It may help to push forward the elimination of taxes on the products in the future, or indicate that future emergency packages should also consider menstrual health.
Many organizations that distribute menstrual products also advocate for removing this “tampon tax.” But most legislative action has been halted or delayed due to the pandemic. A Maryland bill to provide free menstrual products in public schools fell by the wayside this spring after the state issued a stay-at-home order at the end of March.
Maya Rairan was about to start a second part-time job at the Mall of America in Minnesota when the pandemic started, but as everything shut down, the job disappeared. She was also about to start her period, but the loss of income meant she didn’t know how to get tampons.
When her period arrived in early April, Rairan resorted to using toilet paper for two days before finally asking her mother to lend her the $15 she needed for tampons and some Midol. But by the end of the month, the store shelves were almost empty, and she had to purchase pads that did not fit comfortably.
Rairan carefully tracks her finances each month, usually setting aside specific funds for tampons. But she wasn’t able to do that in April due to a recent doctor’s appointment that she paid for instead. There’s not much cash to spare.
“Stuff like that, going to the doctor and being on medicine I need — I always put before pads and tampons,” she said. “Because there’s always toilet paper.”
Bennett was scrolling through social media last year when she saw a post about No More Secrets and its distribution of free pads. She didn’t believe it was real, until Medley showed up at her door with three months’ worth of supplies.
When the pharmacies boarded up, she called Medley again. Bennett knew she could count on her, as they’d kept in touch and Medley had introduced her to menstrual activism. They and others traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a rally for National Period Day last year.
“We have to make the change, it’s just not fair,” Bennett said. “We have to pay this, and we have to pay that for menstrual hygiene. We didn’t ask to be born with a period. We had to have a period.”