By Editor Caroline Zhu

Period. Period, period, period! 

No, I’m not talking about the punctuation point. I’m talking about the vexing monthly visitor half the population gets: menstruation!

Menstruation, however annoying, is vital to the survival of the human race. A quick little biology lesson: every month, the female body automatically starts preparing for pregnancy, growing the lining of the uterus as preparation for nurturing a fertilized egg. A period is a way of releasing tissue that the body no longer needs. In other words, a period is a natural occurrence and not something a woman can (or at least should) opt-out of. 

This means that tampons, cups, and pads are necessary items that half the population must acquire and pay for a dozen times a year. However, this is a burden U.S. legislators are only just beginning to recognize.

“Why are tampons taxed when Viagra isn’t?”

That’s the question at the heart of the controversy over the “tampon tax,” a phrase used to refer to state sales taxes applied to menstrual products. Today, 35 states still tax these items, despite strong momentum to change that.

Proponents of the tax argue that states need the revenue. According to Katherine E. Loughead at the Tax Foundation, “Every time another exemption is passed, it means the tax rate that applies to everything else will have to increase in order to generate that same amount of revenue.” This could mean millions of dollars in increases.

On the other hand, opponents of the tax say that these menstrual products are not luxury items and should be treated like groceries and medical supplies, tax-exempt because they are necessities. While this may not seem like too much like what, a couple of extra dollars for a box of pads? these charges add up over time, amounting to another example of a “pink tax,” a term for the higher prices women pay for gender-specific products.

This tax is sex-based discrimination.

If the tampon tax were axed, it would help alleviate the economic burden for those who can’t afford menstrual products at all. This would include the millions of U.S. children who lose classroom time when they are on their period, incarcerated individuals who are compelled to beg or bargain with corrections staff for pads, and for those experiencing homelessness, who often resort to using discarded, unhygienic newspapers, socks, paper towels, or plastic bags.

As of September 2019, 11 states in the US have eliminated the tampon tax – Minnesota, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and Rhode Island. 

Kenya was the first country to repeal a tampon tax in 2004, mostly because millions of Kenyan girls and women could not afford menstrual products, leading to low literacy rates and sex-based discrimination. Canada dropped the tax in 2015, with Malaysia, India, and Australia following suit. But today, most countries, especially the European Union, still have a tax on menstrual products in place.

At the head of the menstrual equity movement in the United States is a youth-run nongovernmental organization called Period. The Menstrual Movement. Founded in 2014 by then 16-year-olds Nadya Okamoto and Vincent Forand, Period gives women access to the period products they need to feel confident and clean, no matter their income. They’ve addressed over 700,000 periods through product distribution and registered over 450 campus chapters in all 50 US states and over 30 countries.

Co-founder Nadya Okamoto is my personal idol. A New York City native, she lived in a family of five with a father who sexually and physically abused his wife and kids. When Nadya was 9, her mother gave up almost everything she had for sole custody of Nadya and her little sisters, and they moved to Oregon. However, a few years later her mother lost her job and the family ended up legally homeless. Through those years, Nadya started talking with women at homeless shelters, asking them what their most difficult challenges were in their situation. She was shocked to learn that they had all overwhelmingly similar answers: menstrual hygiene.

At 16, she used money from the six jobs she worked at in her freshman year of high school to distribute menstrual products to homeless women. She began picking up the phone to call homeless shelters, auto mechanic shops, and bigger companies, even speaking to Felicity Insurance. 

In 2018, she decided to take a gap year between her freshman and sophomore year at Harvard, to pursue Period full time and to promote her book: Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. Her book informs readers about the causes and effects of period poverty and how to ameliorate it. It also sends a powerful message about something that is hindering our efforts to reform this issue: social stigma.

People who menstruate have long been taught to be ashamed of or keep quiet of their periods 

Now, you know what I’m talking about when I say stigma: Being too embarrassed to ask the school nurse for a pad. Attempting to awkwardly explain why you have to take your bag to the bathroom. Planning out when you change your tampon during school so it doesn’t fall at the same time every day. Struggling between trying to be discreet while ripping open a pad or awkwardly waiting for the other people in the bathroom to walk out. 

Girls are told that from the moment they hit puberty, they aren’t good enough. Girls are told that menstruation is scandalous, vulgar, disgusting.

This social stigma around menstruation and periods is preventing real discussions from being made about reform and change. Heck, we can’t even say the word “period” without whispering.

Why is something so normal, that affects half of our population and is the giver of human life regarded as so shameful in our culture?

Access to affordable menstrual products relates to the human rights to be free from discrimination, to sanitation, to education, to dignity, and to full and productive engagement in civic life.

As Nadya Okamoto says, “Menstrual hygiene is not a privilege – it’s a right.”

A little more about the Period. The Menstrual Movement:

  • Check out their Instagram: @periodmovement and the founder herself @nadyaokamoto

  • October 19th is the first-ever National Period Day – rallies will be held in all 50 states to raise awareness of the unjust tampon tax and the challenges of period poverty (check out period.org to find out how to take part!)

  • To get more involved, you can start a period chapter or hold a period party. 

  • But even doing something simple can make a huge difference – donating just $2 can cover an entire menstrual cycle!