Blood, not banishment: The price of periods

By October 20, 2017Uncategorized
An adolescent girl sits in a classroom in Ethiopia, doing homework.

Photo by Joni Kabana

By Michelle Mathew, Dignity Period volunteer —

Dignity Period works to bring menstrual hygiene supplies to girls in Ethiopia who can’t afford to purchase them, or to places where these supplies just don’t exist. But Ethiopia isn’t the only place where women face a high price for having periods.

In the U.S., companies market their feminine hygiene products to girls and women with a sense of ownership and empowerment. Stroll down the feminine hygiene product aisle at any pharmacy and you’re bound to see colorful boxes of tampons and pads with taglines like Tampax’s “Power over periods.” A quick online search shows the Diva Cup mother-daughter founding team smiling and urging women to “become a menstrual Diva — a leader in period care!”

But what about women who can’t afford the monthly investment required for their stock of pads or tampons?

A conversation-turned-debate has recently reached high levels of the U.S. government, and it centers around the so-called “tampon tax,” which categorizes feminine hygiene products as “luxury items” as opposed to tax-exempt necessities like food and medicine. Sales tax on these items can reach as high as 10 percent in some states. Thirteen states don’t tax feminine hygiene products, and representatives from other states have proposed legislation to eliminate the tax altogether. Meanwhile, in a victory for prisoners’ rights advocates, the Federal Bureau of Prisons earlier this month ordered that prisons provide female inmates with feminine hygiene products free of charge.

But the tax debate isn’t limited to the U.S.

The U.K.’s largest retail grocery store, Tesco, announced in July it would reduce the price of feminine hygiene products by 5 percent, which would cover the tax on these items. As in the U.S., the tax debate has reached the U.K. government, sparking conversation and—hopefully—action. The Canadian government removed its tampon tax in July 2015 after advocates fought for 11 years to get it eliminated.

In other parts of the world, however, progress has had a tougher hill to climb.

In India, feminine hygiene products are significantly taxed and  just 12 percent of women use them,  according to Trisha Shetty, founder of a women’s rights organization called She Says. The rest use cloth, sand, husk, dried leaves and plastic as inadequate substitutes. Access and affordability are major issues. Shetty’s organization recently created an online campaign that went viral, stirring conversation around menstruation in a country that largely views it as taboo. Though the government initially responded that they would consider eliminating the tax, Indian media reported in July that feminine hygiene products were deemed “non-essential” and therefore taxed at 12 percent.

In neighboring Nepal, women pay the cost of periods not with money, but with their health and safety. In mid-August, reports surfaced of three young women—two of whom were teenagers—who died while staying alone in chaupadi sheds. Chaupadi, the practice of menstrual isolation, has its roots in ancient Hindu scriptures and requires menstruating women and girls to sleep in sheds or huts for the duration of their periods, to prevent them from bringing bad luck to their families. The Nepali Supreme Court outlawed chaupadi 12 years ago, but some in rural areas continue to practice it due to deeply held cultural beliefs.

Imagine what a difference it would make if women worldwide had a sense of ownership over their cycles instead of confusion, embarrassment, and shame. This is exactly what Dignity Period is trying to achieve in Ethiopia through education, research, and stigma-fighting outreach.

Two young girls laugh together on the steps of their schoolhouse

Photo by Joni Kabana