By Amanda Honigfort
On International Women’s Day, over 100 women, and a few men gathered at the YWCA to learn about the impact period poverty has on families, society and low-income women trying to climb out of economic strife. The event was hosted by the Women’s Foundation of Greater St. Louis.
“Our mission is focused on economic independence to women and girls, and having access to period supplies effects girl’s attendance at school, it affects women going to work, if women are making choices about buying period supplies or buying food for their families, that’s a key to economic security and we wanted to shine a light on that,” said Lisa Picker, the executive director of the Women’s Foundation who hosted the event.
The most comprehensive and current research on how widespread this issue is, locally, comes from Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, Ph.D., MPH, Assistant Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Saint Louis University.
While working with a local organization, Dignity Period, on work to evaluate the effectiveness of supplying girls in Ethiopia with reusable, safe and hygienic menstrual supplies to help keep them in school, they realized no one was talking about low-income women’s access to menstrual supplies in the United States.
With the help of funding from the Incarnate Word Foundation, she, Saint Louis University and Dignity Period partnered with ten community service organizations here in St. Louis and did surveys and focus groups around whether they had access to period supplies and how it impacts their lives.
“For 64% of the women we interviewed, over the past year there was at least one month where they needed period supplies and they could not afford to buy them for themselves. Of those women, 20% face that on a monthly basis – so every time they had a cycle over the past year, they needed products and they couldn’t afford them and 45% of the women both had issues of food insecurity and unmet need for period supplies at the same time,” said Sebert Kuhlmann.
She said the women talked about the all-encompassing impact this shortage had on their lives – from the day-to-day complications to the mental strain and discouragement.
“These are women who are really just trying to get by, month to month and here’s one more affront to their dignity. We had a number of women tell us, what do you think it’s like, trying to get by with tissue, toilet paper, you have one pair of underwear, you’re trying not soil – how would that make you feel?” shared Sebert Kuhlmann.
One organization working to help supply women with pads, tampons and liners is the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank which has recently expanded to include a sister organization – the St. Louis Alliance for Period Supplies.
“I founded the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank in 2014, partially due to my experience living in poverty with four little kids,” said Jessica Adams. She also serves as executive director of the non-profit.
Her youngest son was still in diapers at this point, and the first time she went to her church’s food pantry and quietly asked if they ever supplied diapers, the volunteer there was shocked and outraged.
“So I thought ‘if this place that exists only to help people who need help, and they never have diapers, diapers must be something that good moms can figure out how to get,” said Adams. “This same sort of thing happens when you have to talk about experiencing this need for period products. That’s exactly the same conversation you would have if you asked for tampons and pads.”
In addition, she explained that when getting food from a food pantry that does have some personal items, you can choose one unit of one thing. That means people have to choose between a bar of soap, a jug of laundry detergent, a roll of toilet paper, one tube of toothpaste or a box of pads or tampons.
“When families lack access to these basic things that they need for dignity, for basic levels of health, you get to a place of I’m never going to get ahead so why am I even trying,” said Adams. “Like ok, I’m on Food Stamps, I”m on WIC, I’m working, I’m trying so hard to make ends meet and none of these things gives me anything to help me take care of my personal self, or my kids so how am I supposed to do this?”
Solving the base of the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is crucial to climbing out of poverty she said which is why she started the diaper bank and is expanding to The St. Louis Alliance For Period Supplies.
The situation for low-income women’s is bleak, but for Missouri women in prison, it’s often worse.
Missouri Appleseed began working with the Federal Government in August 2017 when the federal prisons adopted a policy to ensure that women in their custody have access to industry standard pads and tampons.
“That got Missouri Appleseed thinking – what’s happening in Missouri prisons? If this wasn’t happening before in the federal prisons, what’s happening here?,” said Liza Weiss, executive director of Missouri Appleseed.
Thier research, funded in part by the Missouri Foundation For Health, found that one of the highest rates of female incarnation is in Missouri, and those women have very little access to menstrual supplies.
After surveying ninety inmates and twenty nurses and case workers, Missouri Appleseed learned that a very low quality pad is currently provided for free to the women, but over 80% felt their best option was to use those pads to make homemade tampons.
“We saw a strong correlation between the homemade tampons and reported vaginal infections,” said Weiss. “With respect to the quality of the pads they were receiving – 50% of the women reported on days they had heavy flow having to change the pads more than every 30 minutes – and that’s wearing about 8 pads at a time.”
For those not familiar with an average life of an industry standard pad, it is about several hours to a full day for a single pad dependent on the style of the pad and how heavy the flow is.
“We also found that nine out of ten respondents reported period accidents on their clothes, on their bedding, on the floor – again, just demonstrating the poor quality of the pads.”
Weiss said that the wardens of the prisons expressed a desire to get better products but cited a lack of funding.
Missouri Representative Tracy McCreery (D), District 88, is working with Missouri Appleseed and others to update state regulations to make menstrual products more accessible in women’s prisons and for low income women across the state. Among the bills in progress is legislation to set aside dedicated money to provide industry standard menstrual products to incarcerated women in Missouri and legislation to lower the tax on menstrual products to the same level as food, rather than as a normal consumer good.
“I find this work refreshing, and I feel like a lot of voters like to see when Republicans and Democrats can work together and accomplish great things.” said McCreery. “Within the Missouri legislature, this has been something that is really empowering to work on together with women on both sides of the aisle trying to do the right thing.”
She said all the bills need a great deal of support from constituents and are in varying stages of the legislative process.
“What were trying to do is figure out from a public policy standpoint is figure out how we can get a few things across the finish line,” said McCreery.
The panelists agreed that people they’ve spoken to have been shocked that this is prevalent in our community. Sebert Kuhlmann said step one is raising awareness, but that donating supplies and moving on to programs and policies is important. Adams and the rest of the panel agreed.
“Addressing the stigma around menstruation, addressing the notion that thing that has given rise to all of the life is embarrassing and shameful to talk about is ridiculous – so talk about your periods!” said Adams. “These red pants are my period pants, and I use them as a conversation starter. People say ‘I love your pants!’ and I go ‘Thanks! These are my period pants!’”