Planned Parenthood Generation Action is a network of young activists across the country who organize events on their campuses and in their communities who mobilize advocates for reproductive freedom, educate young people about sexual health, and raise public awareness about reproductive health and rights.
During this year’s National Women’s Health Week, UCS PPGA President, Sloan Wilson talks menstrual stigma.
Imagine having to decide between food and tampons. For people with periods who happen to be homeless or housing insecure, this choice is a monthly reality. At the University of South Carolina, our Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapter decided to confront the double dose of stigma faced by those who experience homelessness and also menstruation.
Stigma is defined as the “shared understanding that something is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable.” Stigma creates such a pervasive “shared understanding” that those who have periods - more than half the population - are often silenced by shame. And for many, even those who feel empathy for people experiencing homelessness, periods don’t even cross their minds. In fact, menstrual products are often the most in-demand items in homeless shelters and the least donated. For us in PPGA, we believe that access to period products is not just about basic healthcare and wellbeing, but also that it is a human right.
PPGA at USC decided to hold a week of advocacy around menstrual stigma that we called “Period Power.” We planned discussions around why stigma still exists when it comes to periods and led an educational forum on “how much do we know about periods?” In addition, we screened the recent Oscar-winning documentary “Period. End of Sentence” and provided a space for dialogue and discourse. Finally, the week ended with an “empowerment” demonstration involving public art creation.
We were also intentional in acknowledging that the experience of menstruation varies by gender - a point that we made sure to promote during our week of advocacy. Because gender non-conforming individuals and trans folx also experience periods, which can increase feelings of body dysphoria, we are careful to use terms such as “people who have periods.” Since the gender one is assigned at birth may not match their true gender identity, the effects of menstrual stigma can be all that much worse. This, in addition to the fact that members of the LGBTQ+ community disproportionally experience homelessness, creates a true lack of access to basic healthcare needs.
While stigma is one barrier to period products, so is cost. Pads, tampons, and cups are often prohibitively expensive. Moreover, period products are taxed as a “luxury” item. In our opinion, access to menstrual products should not have to do with your socioeconomic standing. Those with periods who have lower incomes should not have to suffer the indignity that is calling real medical products a “luxury” while also having to make a choice between those medical products and somewhere to sleep that night. Many students were shocked to find out how difficult it is for those who are economically disadvantaged to experience a period, and they enthusiastically donated to PPGA’s cause.
During the week, we sold cupcakes, gave out literature, and put on several activities for the student body. During a crafting meeting, one of our members made a large tampon dispenser box in which students could put money through a coin slot and tampons would dispense out of the front. Another educational activity was called “What’s down there?” in which students could pin the reproductive organ on an outline of a female reproductive system. We also created interactive art using a sign that stated, “My period is…” and students were encouraged to write any response they wished -- be it positive or negative.
At the end of the week, PPGA at USC raised $765 to purchase menstrual products. We also received actual donations of pads and tampons. PPGA made it clear that menstrual stigma creates yet another barrier to care for people with periods in South Carolina. We hope that students at USC now know a little bit more about homelessness and menstruation. I hope that my peers have learned to recognize and combat stigma, especially when it pertains to those around us who are most vulnerable.