Since 1988, March has been celebrated as Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the trials and triumphs of women.
Throughout the course of time, regardless of our differences, there has been one thing that most women have shared: We get our periods for about one week each month. And when we get our periods, we need ways to keep ourselves and our clothes clean.
This need has fostered a female hygiene industry which in recent years has branched out from pads and tampons to absorbent underwear like Thinx and Knix. But at $25 and more for one pair, the cost of these innovations are out of reach for many women. Still, the global market for femine hygiene products was nearly $22 billion in 2020.
In the United States, there is wide availability of countless varieties of menstrual products. Even in gas station vending machines, there are different sizes, shapes, textures and even colors of products from pads to tampons. Cost is an issue for some women and in places around the world that is compounded by availability issues. And often, there are cultural taboos about even talking about menstruation.
The average American women spends $6,360 on menstrual products from ages 12 to 52. A study conducted by market research company OnePoll found that of 2,000 menstruating women surveyed, 79 percent have made financial sacrifices to pay for hygiene essentials. Four in five think period poverty is a real problem.
Global Period Poverty
Period poverty is a global issue affecting women and others who have no or limited access to safe, hygienic sanitary products. In recent years, the topic has been the focus of advocacy groups such as Alliance for Period Supplies and Helping Women Period.
“(Period poverty) not only brings financial issues to the table but also creates a strong feeling of stress, which can lead to health problems and lower self-esteem,” said Danela Žagar, brand manager for Intimina, a Swedish company that produces women’s hygiene products, in a press release. In 2021, Intimina published “A Wonder Girls Guidebook” to foster discussions among adolescent girls about their changing bodies.
Directions for a DIY Period Pad
Like it has so many things in our lives, the pandemic has altered the ways that teenagers and women have been able to get low-cost or free period products. But one thing has not changed, the monthly need for them.
Bathrooms in offices, high schools and colleges, and at health service facilities have often been reliable places to get menstrual products.
But with so many places operating remotely, women who count on these free supplies have been forced to find other methods of having a comfortable and clean period. One of these methods is creating washable, usable pads. I learned about this method from my roommate who served in the Peace Corps and learned it from her host family in Madagascar.
You will need:
- About ¼ yard each of flannel and fleece to make 5+ pads. (Instead of buying fabric, use an old shirt, towel or bedding.)
- Sewing needle or machine
- Measuring tape
- Some type of closure (snaps or Velcro dots for example)
- Pattern (trace a commercial pad/panty liner to create a pattern or use one of these free ones)
- Stack fabrics and iron; the heat will make them stick together. Cloth pads usually have three layers:
- a top layer of something soft and absorbent, like a cotton flannel
- an absorbent core (cotton flannel, terry, natural fleece)
- a moisture resistant or moisture-proof backing, like fleece
- Use your pattern to cut the fabrics.
- Sew the insert to the wrong side of the top layer.
- Sew the top and bottom layers together, with the wrong sides facing. Leave at least a 2-inch gap for turning inside out. Iron to make it flat.
- Put your fingers in the gap to turn it inside out, so the correct sides of the fabric are on the outside. Iron again.
- Sew around the edges of the pad to secure it.
- Attach closures to the bottom of the wings of the pad.
Enjoy! Or as much as you can enjoy a period …
Finding Free Feminine Hygiene Products
If you’re not the DIY type, there are other ways to make sure you are not up the creek without a paddle when your time comes.
Jennifer Gaines, program director of the Alliance for Period Supplies and Lysne Tait, executive director for Helping Women Period both spoke of local assistance programs that are helping, especially as the pandemic has pushed more women from the job market than men.
Gaines said that for some out-of-work women, supplies that once seemed attainable now may be out of reach. Fortunately, period supply programs distribute free pads and tampons.
“Because of the economic impact of the pandemic, which created high unemployment, many middle-class individuals who were once getting by financially, found themselves in need of help to get the material basic necessities they require,” she said.
Where to Seek Help
Women can find assistance in their communities by calling 211 or going online to 211.org, which operates all over the country. Assistance Information covers many areas including housing, health and jobs, but callers should specifically ask about period supplies when they talk to a representative. The questions can also be asked in writing.
Gaines recommended checking with local faith-based organizations and food pantries, which often collect hygiene products for their clients.
But finding free products and talking about them are different things. Tait said that outside judgment is common for people asking for help, especially regarding menstrual products.
“Our society dislikes ‘dirty’ people, but we don’t offer any support to help them keep clean,” she said.
There are serious consequences for women having to go without proper menstrual products, including mental and reproductive health issues.
“Not having access affects both individuals and the community. Those who cannot afford to purchase menstrual products will use other things to manage their periods, like T-shirts, socks, paper towels, or toilet paper,” Tait said. “Or they will use the products they do have for longer than is medically recommended — both of which can lead to infection and other medical issues.”
Thanks to 14.8 million donated products and their founding sponsor U by Kotex, the Alliance for Period Supplies and their 110 allied programs provided more than 77,000 worry-free periods every month in 2020. Helping Women Period had similar victories, by partnering with local shelters, food banks, and support groups, like Boys & Girls Club of America, to provide products.
Fighting Gender Bias
The eradication of period poverty is a complex issue. One of the cheapest ways to combat this is to work to end the stigma of menstruation, but that may not be the easiest. “The menstrual cycle has been shrouded in mystery for centuries — and our educational system keeps perpetuating this,” Tait said.
“Period poverty is rooted in systemic gender bias,” she said. “Those programs which should be providing these products (as well as diapers) to our most vulnerable population were created by men. Because of the secrecy surrounding the menstrual cycle, the men who created these programs didn’t even think about period supplies as a necessary item.”
Olivia Smith is a writer based in Washington, D.C. who has experience in public and political advocacy work. She is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.