For years, I didn’t give my period very much thought: it was a monthly inconvenience to be dealt with. I navigated the drugstore on autopilot, buying the same brand of tampons every time, never stopping to examine the ingredients the way I would for my cereal or my face cream. It never occurred to me to question the ingredients in my tampons. I assumed that given the intimate nature of the product, there must be tight regulatory controls in place to protect me. Well, not quite.
Last year, I co-founded an all-natural feminine care brand called LOLA on the belief that women have a right to know and understand the ingredients in their feminine care products. But perhaps even more upsetting than the realization that I had no idea what was in my tampon was the realization that, right here in the US, we’re failing to meet an even more basic need than ingredients transparency: millions of women and girls across the United States lack access to the menstrual products altogether.
A problem here at home
I’d heard the statistic that one in ten girls in Africa will miss school because of her period. But I never imagined the same might be true for a girl down the street from me in the US.
Here in New York City, 79% of the city’s public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch, including an estimated 240,000 low-income female students in middle school or above. Many of these female students turn to the school nurse to get the menstrual products they need during the school-day because these products aren’t available in the school bathrooms.
In schools where there can be one nurse for as many as 6,000 students, low-income female students are forced to wait in line to get pads or tampons, which leads to frequent tardiness and absences. Understandably, some girls would rather just give up and stay home, or use a single pad the entire day despite the increased risk of infection. Unsurprisingly, after New York City introduced a 25-school pilot last year providing free pads and tampons in the bathrooms, attendance rates among female students increased.
The issue doesn’t stop with graduation, however, low-income women utilizing the services of homeless shelters have a similar issue.
Why is access to feminine care products such a huge issue?
For starters, feminine care products are not food stamp-eligible. This means that each month, many women who rely on federal assistance are forced to choose between spending money on menstrual products for themselves, or other necessities for their families.
So, many women turn to homeless shelters or non-profit outreach programs to procure menstrual products. However, faced with meager budgets and competing needs, these programs often can’t afford to stock tampons and pads, and people don’t think to donate them the same way we do canned goods or winter coats.
Alicia Horton, Executive Director at Thrive DC, an organization offering meals and pantry items to homeless people in Washington DC, laments that tampons and pads are always in short supply. She explains, ”Feminine hygiene products are one of those needs we recognized as critical to our female clients so we have relied on a combination of donations and purchased supplies to assist our female clients.”
She adds, “Because of limited [financial] resources or donation lows, we have often only been able to provide women a few items at a time to make sure that there was enough for everyone who needed supplies. This strategy, while necessary, requires that our ladies request items every day of their cycle. This can feel demeaning. We dream of maintaining enough inventory so that we can provide a woman ample supply when needed. A small but very significant step to help build and maintain a sense of dignity and self-respect.”
How we plan to help
During our first year in business, we frequently donated products to community collection drives as well as homeless and disaster-relief shelters. But as we learned more about the scope of the issue across the US, we knew we needed to find a better way to help, and we couldn’t do it alone.
Today, we launch our formal charity program, LOLA gives back, with the help of three amazing partner organizations: Support the Girls, Distributing Dignity, and Simply the Basics. LOLA gives you the products you need for your period, and, starting today, your purchase does the same for others. Since our launch last year, we’ve donated 100,000 tampons to women in need, and that’s just the beginning.
Interested in helping? Great!
CREDIT: Alex Friedman