Menstruating women have faced more than toilet paper shortages since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanitary products, such as tampons and pads, have been hard to come by through consumer hoarding, supplier backlogs, and financial strain from job loss. For women who fibroids and women who experience heavy bleeding during and between their periods, this is especially difficult. A recent blog post by Emily Ortman, Communications Director for the Society for Women’s Health Research, outlines the scope of women’s struggle to access menstrual products during COVID-19 and the dangers of ignoring it.*
What is the danger of this issue?
Without access to fresh menstrual products, women can be forced to use the same tampon or pad for longer than the recommended length of time. They may also improvise with products that are not intended for that purpose. This can result in several different health issues, such as yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
Tampons, pads, and other related items are as essential as toilet paper and hand sanitizer for women’s health and hygiene. However, they’re not covered by public health benefits programs in the U.S. and are not freely available in most schools or places of business. In 30 out of 50 states, they are also not exempt from sales tax, as they are not deemed “necessary.”
What is the scope of this issue?
Sadly, “period poverty” is not a new problem. A 2019 survey published in Obstetrics & Gynecology revealed that nearly two-thirds of low-income women could not afford menstrual hygiene products at some point during the previous year. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to compound the problem.
I Support the Girls—a nonprofit that provides undergarments and sanitary products to homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, food banks, and schools—reported that product requests increased by 35% during the first couple of months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) issued a report that called for the:
- discouragement of panic buying and hoarding;
- assurance that menstrual hygiene products are considered essential supplies;
- removal of taxes from menstrual hygiene items; and
- expansion of benefits and social assistance programs for women.
What progress has been made?
Fortunately, the government appears to be listening, and menstrual equity is gaining acknowledgment as being essential for women’s health.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act, signed into law in late March 2020:
- recognizes menstrual products as medical expenses;
- allows these products to be purchased with health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs); and
- allows people with HSA or FSA accounts to file for reimbursement of menstrual products purchased in 2020.
This is a good start, but as Sateria Venable, founder of The Fibroid Foundation, said in a recent podcast, it is only a start. Continued innovation is called for to meet this dire need, and quickly.
“This is a time where we need to pivot to think about health care differently,” said Venable, “and menstrual symptoms do not stop. They are constant, and women are suffering. We have to find creative ways to help them manage symptoms remotely.”
*Ortman, Emily. (2020, May 27). Women Struggle to Access Menstrual Products During COVID-19 Pandemic. Society for Women’s Health Research. https://swhr.org/women-struggle-to-access-menstrual-products-during-covid-19-pandemic/