Fall River tackles period poverty with new grant
It happens to half of the world's population every month, but it has a stigma, and for some, it can be expensive to treat. It's a woman's menstrual cycle.
Now, a Fall River-based coalition is using a $150,000 dollar grant to educate women, and men, about periods, and make menstrual products available for free in local public schools, community centers and shelters. It's part of a statewide movement to end period poverty.
CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Wendy Garf-Lipp, director of the nonprofit United Neighbors of Fall River, about this, and asked her first to define what period poverty means.
Garf-Lipp When we say the words "period poverty," we're talking about having a lack of access to period products due to financial constraints.
We see that some young women resort to using a few tampons that they can afford for prolonged periods of time. They risk toxic shock syndrome, cervical cancer and other dangerous infections. Women improvise with socks and dish rags and newspapers. The cost of seven to $15 per month for a female in a household, depending on where you live, is far too expensive, especially when the family must consider whether they put food on the table or whether they buy menstrual supplies. The situation is so dire that women and girls report staying home and missing a day of school or work, which only reinforces the cycle of poverty.
In Fall River, we added a question to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the vocational school, and [found] one in 10 girls reported that they are unable to afford buying menstrual products. One in seven have had to ask to borrow a product, and one in 12 have had to improvise a product.
Eident This is a multilayered issue, it's economic, but it's also cultural, and there are real impacts on a woman's life and ability to thrive and succeed at school and work. How do you address the stigma associated with the menstrual cycle?
Garf-Lipp Let's first talk about words. You're my second interview this week. The other interview I did was with a male interviewer who could not say the words, "menstrual product" and continued throughout the interview saying, "feminine hygiene products". You know, it's not a bad thing; it's a lack of exposure and being comfortable.
Look at the way we talk about it, "our visitor" or "our monthly friend." Why don't we say, "I'm menstruating, I have my period." We've made those changes with stigmatized words. We say "condoms" now very comfortably. We say "Viagra" now very, very comfortably. We say "transgender" very, very comfortably.
So, all of this is part of what we have to do in changing the way we look at this issue, the way we talk about this issue and the way we teach this issue to our children. By not having napkins and tampons in every single bathroom where menstruators go, we are saying to women and girls, this isn't a normal thing.
Eident Talk about the Fall River Coalition Against Period Poverty.
Garf-Lipp Basically, the coalition came together when we had a visitor come to us from the National Organization of Women—and I never even thought about period poverty. So we began to talk to the girls in our community, and the women in our community. And what we found was shocking to us.
Girls reported that the process to get a product involve the following:
I'm in history class. I raised my hand and I say, "Mr. Smith, can I go to the nurse's office?"
"Wendy, why do you have to go to the nurse's office?"
"I don't feel well."
"What's the matter?"
"My stomach hurts. Please let me go to the nurse's office."
Now I go to the nurse's office. "Can I talk to you privately?"
"There's a lot of kids here. Just tell me what you need."
That's what girls had to go through. Not only is it the embarrassment of that whole thing, think about the amount of time they're missing out of class as they go through this entire process.
Eident And, you took this information to inspire some real change in the Fall River public schools in the city itself. And this includes a $150,000 grant through the National Organization of Women.
Garf-Lipp The grant will allow us to provide products for the Boys and Girls Club, the Y, Greater Fall River Recreation, shelters and congregate housing.
In August of this year, Diman Regional Vocational High School in Fall River decided that they were going to have machines in every women's bathroom, in every gender-neutral bathroom with free products.
We had a couple of women elected to the school committee in November, and they were able to push the public schools to the point where they now will be putting a machine in every middle and high school women's room.
We hope that the change will also include menstrual equity training, about this stigma, about how things work, about products, about poverty so that they can put this in their consciousness when they are dealing with women and girls and menstruate is across the board.
Besides this, we're asking organizations in Fall River to take the “Perish Period Poverty Pledge,” saying that they recognize the issue of period poverty. They will put in all bathrooms in their offices, tampons and napkins, and literature, as well. If they sign on to the pledge, we will start them off with bags of tampons and napkins.
Eident Finally, this effort isn't just focused in Fall River. There's a bill on Beacon Hill to make period products more readily available in public schools statewide, and it's called the I Am Bill. Can you talk about that?
Garf-Lipp This bill contains language to ensure that products are truly accessible without stigmatizing the individuals seeking them out. This past December, the bill was reported favorably out of the Joint Public Health Committee, and now it's been moved to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Right now, there's about 70 organizations that are endorsing the I Am Bill.
Garf-Lipp Thank you, Kathryn. It's a pleasure to be here and thank you for letting us keep this conversation flowing.