In 2019, when I took the stage with director Rayka Zehtabchi to accept the Academy Award for documentary short subject for “Period. End of Sentence,” I held the Oscar high and declared “a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” Nearly 26.9 million viewers in 225 countries heard the rallying cry for menstrual justice. As dizzying as that number is, it represents only a small fraction of the 800 million people on earth who are menstruating at any given time.
Until we have policies that recognize that menstrual health is a biological process fundamental to our physical, emotional, and economic well-being, gender equity can never be achieved.
Set in India, “Period. End of Sentence.” chronicles how attitudes toward menstruation change when women run a pad-manufacturing enterprise in their village. As the executive director of the Pad Project (the non-profit behind the Netflix doc), I am proud the film sparked a worldwide conversation about the taboo topic of menstruation. I am also fearful that too many people believe that period poverty is something that only happens “out there” in low-income countries. In fact, the U.S. lags behind many low-income countries when it comes to addressing period poverty.
Period poverty is the lack of access to menstrual products, to clean and safe toilets, to hand-washing facilities and waste disposal, and to education about reproductive biology. The non-profit Period Equity reports that “many in the U.S. are forced to make a terrible choice between buying food or menstrual products.” A 2019 study in St. Louis found that two-thirds of respondents had not been able to afford products at least once in the last year, and 21% faced this issue monthly. The organization I Support The Girls reports a 35% increase in requests for products since the start of the pandemic. The morning after the Oscars, I woke to an email from a Californian teen telling me she stuffed her underwear with “old socks” because she couldn’t afford pads.
Studies show one in four teenagers in the U.S. miss class due to the lack of access to menstrual products at school, and one in five has struggled to afford products. Currently, only seven states require high schools to provide free products to students: California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, and Virginia. A Good Morning America report states that 1 in 10 U.S. college students experience period poverty, with “Black and Latina women [experiencing] the highest levels of period poverty in the last year along with immigrant and first-generation students.”
The taxation of menstrual products compounds the challenge of access and affordability. Menstruators in the U.S. spend approximately $6,360 over the course of their reproductive lives on period products. A substantial amount of this expense is in taxes. In addition to sales tax, menstrual products may be subject to a luxury tax levied on items deemed “unnecessary.” Missouri taxes tampons but not bingo supplies. Wisconsin taxes tampons but not gun club memberships. And so on. Thirty of 50 states make tampons subject to sales tax. The taxation of the estimated 61 million Americans who use period products enforces gender discrimination. States reap an estimated annual profit of $130 million from periods.
When it comes to policies that allow for — rather than punish — people who have periods, other countries outpace the U.S. In 2018, India exempted pads of the Goods and Services Tax. Similarly, Kenya, Mauritania, South Africa, Tanzania, and most recently, Namibia, did away with the Value Added Tax on sanitary products. Last year, Scotland was the first nation to make period products free for “anyone who needs them.” This year, Ireland’s supermarket chain Lidl will offer free period products in its stores across the country, and New Zealand passed an initiative that requires all schools to offer free products to students. The Kenyan government has distributed free pads in schools since 2011.
If you are among the 20% of American women who suffer from debilitating periods, you cannot expect period leave in the workplace. Japan, however, has had period leave for more than 70 years. In 2019, the Swedish government granted funds to the non-profit Mensen to create period-friendly workplaces, and in 2020, the Indian food service Zomato allowed employees up to ten days of period leave per year. Countries that mandate some amount of menstrual leave include China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Zambia. Just last month, South Korea, a country that has offered paid period leave since 1953, opened a store dedicated to fighting the “long-held stigma around periods.” The Period Shop, which opened near Daebang Station in Seoul, boasts a window display of Diva Cups that are as colorful as confections.
I cannot imagine passing such a storefront on the streets of Los Angeles. For all our bravado, Americans are still squeamish about blood. Period blood, that is. A quick scan of Oscar winners for Best Picture turns up such battle-bloodied victors as “Platoon,” “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” to name only a few. But when “Period. End of Sentence.” won the Oscar, it marked the first time the coveted gold was bestowed upon a film about blood let in the name of life, rather than death. Yet, save for a fleeting image of a stained rag discarded in a field, there is not a drop of blood shown throughout the 26-minute documentary. That would have been, as one venerated member of the Director’s Branch of The Academy put it in the Hollywood Reporter: “Too icky.”
Melissa Berton is executive director of the Pad Project. She wrote the forward for the new book “Period. End of Sentence,” written by Anita Diamant, looking at issues surrounding menstruation around the globe.
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