Last month, Scotland became the first country in the world to take the revolutionary step to offer free period products to all those in need. The mandate, introduced by the Period Products Act, establishes a national scheme to allow anyone in need to access period products free of charge. While Scotland works to eradicate barriers for those who menstruate, however, the U.S. remains stuck in the past as it removes fundamental bodily autonomy rights and refuses to acknowledge the boundaries preventing access to period products. Though some individual states have passed laws aimed at reducing period poverty, no federal legislation currently exists. The U.S. should follow Scotland’s lead and introduce legislation to combat period poverty.
Period poverty is defined as “a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and education.” As of Feb. 2022, 16.9 million people in the United States who menstruate live in poverty — approximately two thirds of those people could not afford menstrual products. Some are even forced to choose between purchasing food and menstrual products.
The fact that people who menstruate even have to make the decision to give up menstrual health in order to feed themselves makes it clear that current laws deprioritize the bodies of low-income people. Moreover, it comes as no shock that there are no concrete federal period poverty laws as those who would benefit from such laws often lie at the intersection of several marginalized identities — and are often left out of various federal protections. For example, 22.5 percent of Black women live in poverty and therefore are more vulnerable to period poverty as compared to 9 percent of white women. Even if policies — or the lack thereof — are not explicitly designed to exclude certain groups, their impact is to functionally re-marginalize the same groups over and over again through exclusion based on financial access.
Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the need for laws to protect those who can become pregnant and those who can menstruate becomes imminently clear. As these often-overlapping groups’ rights are being rolled back, we should acknowledge that we cannot currently do much to guarantee abortion rights on a national scale. Still, at the very least, we should be taking steps to provide period products like pads, tampons and menstrual cups to ease another hardship placed on these groups.
Let me be clear — I am completely and vehemently opposed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and believe that every person’s bodily autonomy must be protected. I believe that ready access to menstrual products gets us one step closer to this goal as it allows people who menstruate to have the flexibility and access to take care of their bodies however they deem fit.
It’s important to note that wealthy, white women will continue to be able to get abortions and afford period products. It is the most marginalized groups, including low-income people and people of color, who will face the most barriers. Period products are often marked up in price due to inflation and not viewed as a necessity, meaning they can be incredibly difficult to access. At the same time, these marginalized groups are often unable to access abortion due to long wait times, the necessity of travel across state lines and the simple cost of the procedure — in both cases, the law is hitting hardest those who are at the weakest.
Aside from continually re-marginalizing already struggling groups, the lack of access to period products has tangible effects on bodily autonomy. When someone can afford period products, they are able to make choices as to which products work best for them and their health, whether it be pads, tampons, menstrual cups or other methods. With financial barriers in place, people must often make product choices based on price instead, or may have to forego period products altogether. This can be detrimental as there is already a pervasive stigma labeling periods and those who experience them as unclean or unsanitary. While this stigma is absolutely incorrect, antiquated and unjust, it does mean that those who are unable to care for themselves and their bodies during menstruation are at a disadvantage and may experience unfair discrimination. By making period products affordable and accessible, it returns senses of autonomy, privacy and the ability to make choices about physical health to those who menstruate.
To examine on a smaller scale the issue of combatting period poverty, we can look to our own institution. It’s important to mention that the provision of period products has progressed because of student activism. More specifically, organizations like PERIOD @ UVA have worked to lobby for more readily accessible period products in restrooms across Grounds. They advocate not only for products to be available in women’s restrooms, but also in gender-neutral and male-gendered restrooms. I want to commend PERIOD for their work — but the University must also continue to take broader action and actually meet student demands. This responsibility cannot fall exclusively to student organizers and should rather be taken up by University administration. Student-self governance does not mean students should be left with the immense task of upholding menstrual health for the entire student body.
The University, however, is merely a microcosm of the larger U.S. Creating wider-ranging period poverty laws would be a step in the right direction toward protecting and respecting the bodies of those who can menstruate and become pregnant. Though bodily autonomy through abortion is quickly being reduced, by breaking financial barriers to menstrual product access, we can increase another form of autonomy and choice — the freedom to take care of oneself and one’s reproductive health in a way that best suits us.
Hailey Robbins is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.