words by Allyson Smith, illustration by Chris Harvey
Aunt Flo, “on the rag,” “that special time of the month,” period. All of these are slang for something many people experience every single month. That’s right, today we’re talking about menstruation.
Now, before you turn the page in disgust or roll your eyes, hear me out: Menstruation directly affects half the world’s population. So why shouldn’t we talk about it?
All over the world and in our own city, people experience period poverty. Period poverty is an inability to afford menstrual hygiene products, such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups.
According to a survey commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD, one in five teens in the U.S. can’t afford menstrual hygiene products.
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Some individuals and organizations in Akron are working to combat period poverty, including Savannah Daniels, AxessPointe Community Health Center and Project Rise, an organization that helps Akron Public School students who are experiencing homelessness.
In 2019, Daniels participated in a start-up competition hosted by the University of Akron’s EXL center. Her products were sustainable menstrual cups, called Courtesy Cups.
Daniels was inspired by her experience in the Army Reserves, which involved sleeping outside without running water and carrying everything in a backpack, including used food and hygiene items. She remembers complaining to a peer about the struggle of menstruating while in the field.
“How privileged of me to think that way when there are women who are experiencing homelessness,” Daniels reflected.
Daniels used a menstrual cup, which is a menstrual hygiene device that is inserted into the vagina to catch blood during menstruation. This inspired her to create a more compact and sustainable style of menstrual cup. Unlike other products, like pads and tampons, menstrual cups are reusable, making them more sustainable and a better option in situations like Daniels’.
“I’ve created a more compact cup that fits inside of a carrying case that can clean it on the go, so that way it’s a solution not only for women in the field. It’s a solution for backpackers and long-distance bikers and backcountry skiers and women experiencing homelessness.”
Daniels is hoping to get a contract with the military to produce these menstrual cups as well as get them on the market for consumers.
Organizations like AxessPointe Health Center and Project Rise provide community resources to help combat period poverty in Akron.
AxessPointe has a hygiene closet where clients can get products for free and without judgment. Hygiene closets are available at three of AxessPointe’s five locations: Arlington, Barberton and downtown Akron.
Marihelyn Horrigan, Nurse Care Manager at AxessPointe (and sister of Mayor Dan Horrigan), explains that a large part of the problem, in addition to inaccessibility, is the stigma surrounding menstruation altogether. She says it’s like a “dirty little secret.”
She recalled a meeting she had with a client who was accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter, who had missed school because she was on her period and did not have the supplies she needed.
“So I dove in a little bit deeper. She misses [school] once a month because of lack of personal hygiene items. Now her mom was working, but you have to make a decision between personal hygiene items and paying the electric [bill]. It doesn’t sound like a lot to somebody, but it’s life-changing.”
Horrigan said after that meeting, she began asking more clients if they needed menstrual hygiene products. She found that many clients began asking for hygiene products in general. As far as menstrual products, Horrigan said that some clients resorted to methods that her grandmother used, in the 1920s, before the widespread use of disposable pads and tampons.
“Just because you’re lacking the funds, you should still be able to have the choice and be able to take care of your body and take care of you. That all goes into self-esteem and in building a woman and being able to… empower a woman for self-esteem.”
In addition to menstruation being a taboo subject, Horrigan says poverty itself is stigmatized, causing many people to be unaware of period poverty.
“[There’s] stigma for asking, because being poor is stigmatized,” she explains. “Here are people who are working every day who still can’t afford that [these items]. It’s because they have their children’s needs to meet, they have electricity [bills], they have food [costs], it’s just a vicious [cycle]. I call it the doughnut hole.”
Rachel Breece, Special Programs Coordinator of Project Rise, an organization that helps homeless students enrolled in Akron Public Schools, says that Project Rise has been playing their part in combating period poverty as well.
“It mostly affects teens… so you can imagine their resources are extremely limited. We previously focused on getting them on lists for housing or shelter or food… and also they’re asking more. These girls are more open to asking [for menstrual products] and now we know to ask,” Breece says.
According to Breece, “Of the female unaccompanied youth, the case managers estimated that at least half were given feminine hygiene products and many expressed how helpful that was.”
Unaccompanied youth refers to those who are “not in the company of a caregiver.” Out of the 2,113 students the organization served during the 2019-2020 school year, Project Rise says 213 were unaccompanied.
Breece also says that at Project Rise, they often include hygiene products into donations for youth, even if they don’t ask for them, because they can always be used. Some of the students with Project Rise have also stated that they have missed school because of their periods.
“We hear about girls missing school because they’re worried about having accidents… It seems like a small thing but it’s really a big thing, like a school uniform, You aren’t going to go to school without [pads or tampons],” Breece explains.
Another factor Horrigan and Daniels agree on is that this stigma is generational. Horrigan points out that a lot needs to change so younger people can feel empowered.
“It’s just seeing the empowerment of young women and saying, Hey, I don’t have this… they’re not able to say it at, I mean, they’re starting at nine years old now. How do you tell a nine year old, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I can’t go get you your items that you need’?” Horrigan says.
Breece also points out that it’s a privilege that many people do not have to worry about having access to these kinds of products.
“It just helps you imagine your privilege in that it’s something that I would never think about it, but to think that it is something that’s such a barrier for some of the moms and students in our program, it’s not something people are typically donating…. This isn’t something that comes in a lot, so [we’re] just getting the word out that this is a big need,” Breece says.
Menstruation is often seen as taboo. From hundreds of euphemisms to slipping tampons up our sleeves so no one will know we use them, all of these things play a role in creating the stigma that makes inaccessibility of menstrual hygiene products such a hard subject to talk about.
According to Horrigan, Daniels and Breece, the best thing we can do to help community members experiencing this kind of poverty is to talk about it. De-stigmatizing not only menstruation but the struggles many people face because of it can help reduce the shame or embarrassment many feel when asking for menstrual products and assistance.
Community members can also donate to hygiene closets around the city like those at AxessPointe Community Health Center. Horrigan says people can donate money or products, or even have a personal hygiene drive. Project Rise accepts donations of these products and gift cards to stores like Walmart, Target and CVS, so that those in need can pick out the products that best fit their needs. Donations can also be made to shelters around the city.
Period poverty is a barrier to education for teens in our community. While a few people and organizations are focused on finding a solution, it needs addressed to ensure that teens have access to the products they need and the education they deserve.