Why You Absolutely Need to Care About Period Poverty and Stigma
This isn't a fringe feminist issue—it's a human rights issue with important global repercussions.
When you were stressing over your driver's test, Nadya Okamoto was starting a nonprofit called PERIOD. When you were sipping lukewarm beer in a frat basement, she was giving a TEDx talk. Now, she's 22 years old, a rising senior at Harvard, and author of the book Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. Not to say you haven't done valuable things with your life, but I think we can all agree: This young woman is absolutely crushing it.
If you're wondering what all the menstrual movement hype is about, it's time you learn from Okamoto herself: "This is not a women's issue, but a human issue, because it affects all of us," she says. Here's her story and why you—and everyone else on Earth—needs to care.
How PERIOD Began
Okamoto started PERIOD when she was just 16 years old after witnessing first-hand the realities of period poverty—aka the inability to afford period products due to lack of access or financial resources. Her family was temporarily without a home of their own, and she was forced to commute two hours to get to school each day. This daily journey required a bus transfer in the Old Town, a neighborhood in Portland, Oregon with a dense population of homeless shelters in just a small radius. Okamoto started befriending the local women who were also without a home, asking them about their living situations, the circumstances that got them there, where their families were, their education, and more.
"I'd ask them 'What's the most difficult thing about your living situation?' and it was through these conversations that I heard all these stories of women using toilet paper and socks and brown paper grocery bags and cardboard to take care of their periods," says Okamoto. "It was a wake-up call for me—I had never thought about period poverty before. But it also helped me recognize my own privilege. Even in this time when my family was legally homeless and I had to mark 'no permanent address' on school forms, I never had to use trash to take care of my periods." (Related: Gina Rodriguez Wants You to Know About "Period Poverty"—and What Can Be Done to Help)
In Okamoto's all-female family (comprising her sisters and their single mom), "periods were very openly discussed," she says. "But when I talked to these homeless women, we all treated menstruation like it was this bad word—we would whisper 'period' like it was something that we needed to hide. We'd conceal tampons when we handed them to each other. I started to notice how the stigma persisted in my own life and became absolutely obsessed with it."
The Impacts of Period Poverty and Period Stigma
Eager to make a change, Okamoto organized a period product drive in her community to support the local homeless shelter—and that's how her nonprofit PERIOD, a global youth-powered nonprofit fighting to end period poverty and stigma, was born. It started with the simple act of distributing period products to those in need, but the organization has quickly grown in the last five years. To date, PERIOD has addressed more than 1 million periods through product distribution and started more than 700 PERIOD chapters in all 50 US states and in 40+ countries. Plus, right now, the nonprofit is distributing 2 million period products to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic.
But they're also pushing for more systematic change, including fighting the "tampon tax," demanding freely accessible period products in schools, shelters, and prisons, advocating for better menstrual education, and spreading awareness about these plights.
Oh, and about that "tampon tax": Today, 30 States in the U.S. have a sales tax on period products because they're considered non-essential items. Though laws vary by state, non-taxable "essential" health items include things such as pain relievers and cold medicines, lip balm, condoms, sunscreen, eye drops—but these rules sometimes extend to cover things that are far less, well, essential. "Products like Rogaine, Viagra, and penile pumps are sometimes considered essential goods—necessities," says Okamoto.
Meanwhile, period products—which are an inevitable necessity for half the population—are taxed as if getting a period (and doing something about it) is a choice.
"The tampon tax doesn't affect people experiencing the most poverty—it affects people who are able to afford period products but are struggling to make that purchase," notes Okamoto. But because period products aren't labeled essential goods, it acts as a roadblock to making these products free in places like prisons, shelters, and schools. "The argument there is that they shouldn't have to have period products or need to have access to period products because they're not essential goods," says Okamoto. "So the tampon tax is sort of this necessary Trojan horse we need to fight with before we can address overall period poverty."
And part of fighting period poverty—and gaining respect for the menstrual movement in general—is fighting period stigma, or the tendency to regard menstruation with shame or disgust. Period stigma has fostered menstruation to be thought of as this taboo topic—literally the word "taboo" comes from the Polynesian word "tapua" which is thought to mean menstruation, but also "forbidden," or "not allowed," according to Okamoto. (Related: No, Your Period Is Not a "Toxin-Shedding" Process)
The stigma associated with periods has a direct impact on period poverty. "Because it's this taboo topic, most people don't even know period poverty exists," says Okamoto. "It's also saying that menstruation is something that we hide, that we keep to ourselves, and menstrual hygiene is not a right, it is a privilege. And that idea of menstrual hygiene not being a right is at the basis of why we have such a problem with period poverty."
How, exactly, did we get to a point where periods became so shameful? "Period stigma exists for a number of reasons," she says. "First and foremost, it's one of the first biological phenomenons that really distinguishes male from female—it's very gender-specific. And as a biological phenomenon, it marks when a body can become pregnant, as well. So, as society created gender roles, that mark of menarche (the first period) suddenly became this milestone of when a young woman could be a wife and a mother."
At the same time, not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women—some are trans or non-binary but because they were assigned female at birth, and may still get their period, says Okamoto. "That's why you hear us use terms like menstruator to be gender-inclusive about all period experiences." (Related: Always Promises to Remove the Female Venus Symbol from Its Packaging to Be More Inclusive)
Why You Need to Care About the Menstrual Movement
While free anything might sound like a longshot and a luxury, it really isn't, if you think about it in terms of basic biological functioning and the needs associated with that. Take toilet paper, for example.
"If you walked into a bathroom and there was no toilet paper, you'd be pissed," says Okamoto. "But periods are just as natural as going to the bathroom. In men's restrooms, for cis-gendered men, all of their natural needs (and more) are taken care of in public restrooms—from paper towels and soap and toilet paper to urinal cakes. Meanwhile, for menstruators, 92 percent of the time, there are no period products in the bathroom." And if they are available, you have to pay for them.
Even if you don't get a period or you don't care about periods, this issue pertains to you, says Okamoto. "The end goal of the menstrual movement isn't actually about periods, it's about gender equality," she says. "When you look at gender equality, the way that the United Nations and the World Health Organization define it is through factors that fall into four buckets: education, health care, economic mobility, and representation in politics and decision making. Period poverty and stigma have held back menstruators throughout history, and it continues to hold back menstruators from achieving their full potential—especially in educational and economic mobility."
A whopping 46 percent of low-income women in St. Louis had to choose between a meal and period products during the past year, and a report by PERIOD found that 84 percent of teems missed class or know someone who has missed class because they couldn't afford or didn't have access to period products. "That shows us that the menstrual movement is truly a key that we need to achieve to address overall gender equality and global development," says Okamoto.
"And even if you don't get a period, you know someone and you love someone who gets a period, whether it's a wife, a daughter, a girlfriend," she says. "You're here because menstruation exists, and menstruation makes human life possible. Your mom got a period on a monthly basis and then she didn't, and now you're here, right? Menstruation is so prevalent in our lives and makes human life possible and I think we forget that."