The luxury of menstrual hygiene

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The average woman will have her period for 40 years of her life. Currently the average lifespan of a woman in the United States is 81.1 years. So for almost half of their lives, the majority of women will live with a menstrual cycle in need of proper hygiene products. Pads, tampons, Advil, heat packs, chocolate, a change of underwear and bed linens are the constant reminders of a period cycle. But through each monthly cycle of cramps, changing pads and tampons and body fatigue, women continue in their societal, career and familial roles. The menstrual period is a part of life that women deal with just like any other bodily function— which raises the question, why are menstrual products treated as a luxury?

In a recent study of St. Louis, Missouri, two-thirds of low income women reported they were unable to afford basic feminine products like pads or tampons. Without the ability to pay for these products, women were forced to wear rags, diapers or even just toilet paper to handle the natural bleeding. The inability to properly manage a period causes issues with hygiene and mental health to follow suit. “Most women can identify with having to ‘make do.’ You know, you’re caught off guard, you’re out in public and your period starts — you make do with some toilet paper or you borrow from a friend,” study author Anne Kuhlmann said. “But to have to do that every month, and to have to do that when you may have only one pair of underwear yourself — that affects your dignity and your sense of self and your sense of being able to care for yourself.” These problems are seen in females of all ages; even as children, girls are forced to miss school due to period shaming and embarrassment.

Thus far, in most areas of the United States there is still a sales tax on feminine hygiene products as they are not classified as products that fulfill a basic, necessary need. Though states, such as Florida, are beginning to ban the tax to recognize the essential purpose of the product, many women are still left grappling with a cost barrier. Community organizations and non-profit groups are lobbying schools and government bodies to provide access to free feminine hygiene products. A tangible example of this accessibility can be seen on Cal Poly’s campus. An initiative started by ASI and enacted by Cal Poly Facilities, allowed for free feminine hygiene products to be provided to students at select locations on campus.

Unfortunately, the issue of feminine hygiene goes beyond the U.S. as an even greater global issue. Recently, the Oscar winning documentary, “Period. End of Sentence” shed light on the lack of menstrual education in countries like India. The film follows women who begin to manufacture their own pads, or sanitary napkins, in hopes of allowing girls to comfortably stay in school and for grown women to be able to hygienically take care of their bodies. Though there has not been a study large enough yet to determine the link between menstrual hygiene challenges and lapse in schooling, there is a focal issue at hand. While many researchers are working to understand why girls may be leaving the education system after starting their periods and the subsequent effects, is a link even necessary to prove? It may make lobbying to government bodies or school districts easier, but ultimately being able to manage a natural bodily function is a human right.

Providing affordable feminine hygiene products, such as pads, is a great start, but there is still much more that needs to be done. Schools that lack running water, toilets and have a dearth of education for girls about menstruation and how to manage it are core institutional issues. The stigma behind periods is blatantly obvious; girls are left feeling as if they cannot talk about their bodily functions and sometimes are even forced into isolation when menstruating. Until females and males are educated about periods, it is rather mindless to expect proper facilities, safe environments and essential feminine products to be publicly promoted. It is up to policymakers to ensure that comprehensive sexual growth and development education is accessible.

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