Over the past few years year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about women’s issues and women’s rights.  What I have learned has shocked and saddened me, especially conversations that focus on women’s periods.  We almost never talk about it, yet the menstrual cycle is ubiquitous.  It’s one of the only things that makes me uniquely female and is universal for almost all women.  The truth is that I had never considered the challenges of having my period beyond my own experiences.  In my own life, if I run out of tampons, I can quickly run out to the store and buy some, or, more often than not, I ask my Dad to get them for me.  At school, I can take Advil whenever I need it.  In fact, each of these experiences would be a luxury for millions of women and girls around the world.  These women and girls don’t even have access to tampons or disposable pads.  None can expect a father or husband to go to the store to buy them considering the deeply rooted stigmatization of periods and the lack of respect that women across the world and even in my communities endure.  Accessibility and affordability of feminine hygiene products is a challenge that makes a shocking difference in the lives of many women, and especially young girls today.       

For one example, let’s take a look at Nigeria.  This country is just one place among many where both the stigma and knowledge surrounding periods remains more or less the same as it was hundreds of years ago.  One of the most startling and disappointing facts is that the number one reason why girls in underdeveloped countries drop out of school is because they don’t have access to sanitary supplies, can’t afford them, and aren’t educated about their bodies.  According to UNESCO, one in ten girls will drop out of school because a of a lack of access to supplies.   In Nigeria, sixty-five percent of women and girls can’t afford disposable sanitary pads which means that they must use a cloth that needs to be hand washed and dried.  If cloth is not available, women might resort to bark and dirt.  Girls choose not to go to school because of period cramps and fear of their blood being visible.  Often, after continually missing one week out of every month of school, the girls fall behind, and subsequently, drop out.  Given all of the chaos in the world today, it is especially disheartening that a girl is forced to forfeit her education simply due to a lack of sanitary supplies. This seems like a problem that could be fixed and has the potential to provide dramatic economic benefits.  

Fortunately, there are organizations, such as AfriPads, Lunapads, Dontaepads, Days for Girls and more, that are working to provide knowledge and supplies to women and girls who don’t have access.  In 2009, a study done by the Ministry of Education in Nigeria found that a greater distribution of sanitary pads coupled with sexual and reproductive health education would increase attendance in school by 3.5 days per month.  This is a small yet important step.

Poverty also plays a big role in the life of a woman while she’s menstruating - both in my hometown of Chicago and around the world.  If a woman doesn’t have enough money to buy pads or tampons, she has to make them out of a reusable material.  In a place without easy access to clean water, it can be difficult to maintain hygienic sanitary pads, ultimately compromising a woman’s health.  In the United States, because sanitary products are not a part of “government approved” health care, women have to spend extra money to purchase them.  Over the course of one year, a woman will spend close to one hundred and fifty dollars on menstruation related products alone.  When each penny counts, one hundred and fifty dollars is a tremendous burden.  For this reason, there has been a new discussion on the “tampon tax” brewing in small circles around the country.  The tax on feminine hygiene products seems especially unfair when compared to items that are tax free such as edible sugar flowers or crocodile meat.  It is laughable to think that tampons are considered a “luxury” item while edible flowers might considered “essential”.  

Similar to international organizations, there are numerous groups working to help women on national and local levels.  Of course, it’s simply not enough so I started an organization at my school in Chicago, Francis W. Parker, called “Tampon Tuesdays” to help raise awareness and funds for women and girls who can’t afford feminine hygiene products.  On the first Tuesday of every month, Tampon Tuesdays holds a bake sale, movie screening, or event to help raise money and awareness about this issue.  At every event, students and staff alike have the option to pay with either tampons and pads or cash.  Communication is key, and Tampon Tuesdays works equally hard to help reduce the stigma around periods and tampons.  Believe it or not, many boys have been very willing to help and enthusiastic about this cause.  It may be the cupcakes, but even holding a tampon begins to minimize the mystery around menstruation and tampons.  Additionally, I have begun to partner with other schools in Chicago, spreading awareness and raising money for the cause.  Already, in it’s short life, Tampon Tuesday has reached close to a thousand people, raised hundreds of dollars and collected hundreds of tampons and pads.  During the current school year, the tampons and pads will be donated to the Maria Shelter in Hyde Park, Chicago.  Concurrently, given the significant challenges internationally, the money collected will be donated to Days for Girls International, an international organization that works to provide reusable pads to women and girls as well as educate young women about their bodies and promote education for young women.

Feminine hygiene is a global problem.  And, it is one that has been ignored and dismissed for centuries.  Far too many women have been silenced.  A beautiful and natural function of the human body should be acknowledged and respected not put to shame or ignored.  We can all do our part in raising awareness and spreading the word.  Tampon Tuesday is one step in the right direction.  If you are interested in learning more, email me at nsachs@fwparker.org!