Note: This article refers to people who menstruate as women in order to emphasize the gender bias in healthcare and public policies. I recognize, however, that not all women menstruate, and that not all individuals who menstruate are women.
At any given moment, there are about 334 million women in the world on their period; presented with the choice, however, it is highly likely that the vast majority of these women would opt out of the “luxury” of spotting, cramps and constant bleeding.
Despite the inconvenience and discomfort of menstruation, all but five states–Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Jersey–consider feminine hygiene products a “luxury,” and tax them as such. The United States is not alone, however. Almost every country, with the exception of Canada, taxes menstrual products.
The mere mention of subsidies for sanitary products, like the idea of insurance coverage for contraceptives, is often met with outrage. Washington Examiner contributor Jessica Valenti writes, “That, along with cries for free birth control or free whatever just because we’re women stops looking like equality and more like a new class of privilege.” Subsidized birth control and sanitary products, however, would not create a “new class of privilege,” but simply level the playing field. Women would not be paying less than men for health insurance; they merely would not be paying extra for being born female.
However, while some health insurance providers do cover various forms of birth control, which are crucial for both male and female health, menstrual products, which are just as important to female health as contraceptives, are almost never considered essentials. Healthcare is, in theory, intended to cover all major aspects of an individual’s health, and the lack of regard for menstrual hygiene poses risks for all women, but particularly those with low incomes.
Vassar’s readily available supply of free condoms is a huge step in terms of both physical well-being and the de-stigmatization of the subject of sexual health. But tampons are just as essential to women’s health, and should be equally accessible. On a campus as open and diverse as Vassar’s, menstruation ought to be discussed with the same ease and knowledgeability as sexuality.
Although the plan is not yet in motion, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) is currently working toward the availability of free tampons and pads for students. VSA has expressed that it is difficult to find a company that fits the school’s needs, since the distribution of free sanitary products to an entire student body is rare.
The issuing of tampons and pads will most likely be similar in nature to CHOICE. Eventually, with any luck, sanitary products will be as freely available as contraceptives.
In the meantime, VSA is looking into the installation of vending machines dispensing essential supplies, including menstrual hygiene products, in all of the dorms on campus. Such a thing currently only exists in Main, as of the fall of 2015.
While Vassar’s students, faculty and administration continuously work to ensure that individuals of all genders have the same opportunities, both in the classroom and outside of it, the topic of menstruation remains all but unbreached outside of VSA. The stigma surrounding menstruation in general, as well as the inaccessibility of sanitary products to trans individuals, is rarely addressed.
Although Vassar strives to provide a safe space for students of all genders, our school, like every other, is far from perfect.
It is a given that any public space or private business provides toilet paper and soap in their restrooms. When it comes to menstrual products, however, which are just as important to basic hygiene, free access is extremely uncommon.
Although free sanitary products are almost unheard of in American colleges and universities, some public school districts have begun to look into the possibility of distributing tampons and pads.
New York Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras is currently drafting legislation that would provide free feminine hygiene products to all middle schools and high schools across New York City.
Ferreras recently explained in an interview with Fusion, an online news source, that the legislation is about “bringing dignity to young girls.” She argues that, although “having a period has so much taboo attached to it, menstruating simply means that a person is “a wonderful, healthy woman.”
Like many others who have made the case for subsidized sanitary products, Ferreras was confronted with an onslaught of backlash from conservative readers and New Yorkers.
She reports receiving emails equating the distribution of free tampons to schoolgirls to handing out free cars. Ferreras replies to these charged remarks by pointing out that sanitary products, unlike cars, are not luxury items, and that we therefore should not limit public access to them.
Providing these products in public bathrooms would also benefit women living off little or no income. Although this solution would not entirely solve the issue of unsubsidized sanitary products, it would at least reduce the cost and urgency of purchasing tampons and pads.
Some public spaces and private businesses already supply these products, However, many such places charge 10–25 cents per product. This may seem inconsequential to most; to those without a consistent stream of income, however, small fees such as these begin to add up.
Particularly in developing nations, the extra expense of sanitary products can affect not only women’s health, but their education and income as well. Many girls in developing countries, unable to afford menstrual products, are forced to miss a week of school every month. Similarly, working women risk missing a week’s worth of pay. While these women are punished for menstruating, they are simultaneously expected to produce healthy children, a contradiction that most governments gladly overlook.
In Bangladesh, 73 percent of female factory workers miss approximately six days per month due to infections caused by the use of unclean rags instead of tampons or pads. This means that their pay is continuously limited, thus prolonging the cycle of poverty and health issues.
Even in the developing world, access to menstrual hygiene products can be prohibitively expensive. Over 40 million women in the United States alone are living in poverty, and the cost of sanitary products can be hugely detrimental. Some women resort to selling their food stamps in order to pay for tampons and pads. The choice between nutrition and menstrual hygiene is a decision that no one should be forced to make.
On average, a woman uses 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, costing her upwards of $70 a year. In particular for women with little to no income, this is a staggering price to pay for simply having a uterus.
Greater accessibility of sanitary products would improve women’s health not only one week each month, but every day of the year as well. When living in fear of running out of menstrual care products, women are forced to use the same products for unhealthy periods of time, which puts them at risk for complications such as toxic shock syndrome and blood poisoning, which can permanently damage women’s lives.
Menstrual hygiene is as essential to female health as contraception. The ability to move about freely in public spaces every day of the month should be a right, not a luxury. Menstrual care is health care, although it is rarely treated as such. The stigmatization of menstruation only serves to perpetuate our culture’s discomfort with the female body.
Gloria Steinem once stated that if men could menstruate, they “would brag about how long and how much.” The “beginning of manhood” would be marked by “gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners and stag parties.” I’m sure most of us, however, would be willing to settle for some free tampons.