“Menstrual equity” refers to equal access to hygiene products. And it’s the focus of a variety of new laws and policies.
The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years’ time of making sure you have a pad or tampon, finding a makeshift solution if you don’t, and managing pain and discomfort.
And lately, women — and transgender and nonbinary people who menstruate — are talking about it in public more than ever before. There are new products and services on the market, from menstrual cups to period underwear to medicinal cannabis and “period coaches.”
Activists are bringing the concept of “menstrual equity” into the public debate. “Menstrual equity” refers to equal access to hygiene products, but also to education about reproductive health. And it’s the focus of a variety of new laws and policies to provide menstrual products in prisons, shelters, schools and even on Capitol Hill.
Advocates are also urging states to exempt menstrual-hygiene products from sales tax, arguing that they’re a necessity.
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A frequent refrain: Why are tampons taxed when Viagra is not?
Increased media coverage and some high-profile episodes — like Kiran Gandhi bleeding freely as she ran the London Marathon in 2015 and a backlash over Instagram deleting a photo of a period stain — have accelerated the shift.
Last month, a member of Britain’s Parliament announced in the House of Commons that she was menstruating, to make a point about “period poverty.”
And India said Saturday that it would eliminate a controversial 12 percent tax on sanitary pads after a campaign by advocacy groups and celebrities. Canada also abolished a sales tax on such products in 2015, and an Australian push to do the same made progress this year.
Here’s an overview of the issues that women’s health advocates are talking about.
The fight for equal access to menstrual products: Laws in several states now mandate access to menstrual products in correctional facilities, shelters and schools. Two prison reform bills in the Senate — including the First Step Act, which is backed by the White House — include provisions on access to menstrual hygiene products, after complaints that the facilities were not providing an adequate supply. And the Justice Department directed federal prisons to provide inmates with free menstrual products last year.
In the House, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., has introduced two related bills. One aims to make periods more affordable, in part by allowing employees to use flexible spending accounts to buy pads and tampons, and requiring companies with more than 100 employees to provide them. The other would require manufacturers to disclose ingredients in such products.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., was ordered to reimburse the Committee on House Administration for menstrual products.
“We applaud you for making toilet paper available,” Maloney and Meng wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan about the matter. “We implore you, however, to go one step further and make feminine hygiene products available to those who need them.”
Pressing to end ‘the tampon tax’: In the past two years, New York, Illinois, Florida and Connecticut have abolished sales tax on menstrual products. That brings the number of states that tax such products to 36 — and lawmakers in two dozen of those states have introduced bills to nix the tax.
There are similar efforts underway around the world, including in Britain, where the campaign to “ax the tax” got caught up in the Brexit debate.
Lawmakers were unable to repeal the tax because of European Union rules, and it became a rallying point for the pro-Brexit camp. Lawmakers have pledged to abolish the tax once Brexit is complete. Until then, taxes from menstrual products are being put into a special fund for women’s health.
Canada also abolished sales tax on menstrual products in 2015, and an Australian push to do the same made progress this year.
Bold moves around the world: Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, regional director for the United Nations Population Fund in East and Southern Africa, said there has been a groundswell of advocacy around menstrual-health management.
Kenya and Uganda abolished sales tax on menstrual-hygiene products, while Zimbabwe subsidizes local manufacturers. The Kenyan government also provides funding for pads in schools.
Girls and women around the world must also contend with cultural stigma, shame and social isolation. A recent report published by Onabanjo’s agency noted that there is powerful evidence that girls are more likely to miss school or even drop out if they’re unable to manage their cycle, sometimes because of teasing over their periods.
Can technical innovation ‘solve’ the problem of periods? New products and services are promising to make periods less burdensome, from period-tracking apps and coaching on nutrition and self-care, to items like environmentally friendly reusable pads, absorbent underwear and cups.
The creators of the popular app Clue say they have 2.5 million users in 180 countries and share anonymized data with women’s health researchers from top universities.
The creators of Livia, an electrical stimulation device touted as “the off switch for menstrual pain” collected $1.7 million in orders on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. While some online reviewers found it helpful, many of the comments on Indiegogo focus on shipping delays, device malfunctions and customer-service complaints.
There’s been greater attention to the role that diet and exercise can play in one’s period. Many coaches also suggest acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation and massage.
“What I do is help women become more informed about how their bodies work,” said Erica Chidi Cohen, co-founder and chief executive of LOOM, a reproductive-health center in Los Angeles that recently introduced a period-coaching program.
That includes being aware of hormonal changes throughout the month, and how one’s energy might ebb and flow at different points. Some of her clients plan big events, like business trips, based on their cycle.
“It can actually be a very positive thing if we learn what’s happening and lean into it,” she said.