Menstrual products are essential. So, why doesn’t everyone have access to them and what can we do about it? 

Sarah Teh, Former YW Boston Advocacy Intern
Menstrual equity blog

Note on language: We use terms such as “menstruators” or “menstruating individuals” because we recognize that menstruation is not dependent on gender. 

The issue of period poverty and menstrual equity is often unacknowledged, overlooked, and unaddressed. However, this issue is intrinsically linked to gender inequality, income inequality, education inequality, and healthcare inequality. Period poverty, or the lack of access to menstrual products and education, is a global health issue. We need to prioritize ending period poverty and creating menstrual equity.

Within Massachusetts alone, research shows that one out of seven children are living in poverty and struggle to pay for menstrual products. Menstrual equity advocates for equal access to menstrual products for all menstruating individuals. As we look to ensure everyone has their basic necessities, menstruation products are often overlooked. With half of the world menstruating, it is imperative to create equal access to menstrual products and education.  

Accessing menstrual products is not as straightforward as it may seem.

The hard truth is many menstruators go to the bathroom expecting their needs to be met only to be disappointed. This access is even more unlikely for menstruators of marginalized gender identities. In many public restrooms, it is common to see a menstrual product dispenser. Though they were implemented with the intention to make period products easily accessible for menstruators, more often than not, these dispensers are either out of order, provide limited products, only present in women’s restrooms, or require payment to access. 

And when individuals seek out these materials, those running institutions often don’t have the resources to provide them. According to Mass NOW, 25% of Massachusetts’ homeless shelters do not provide menstrual products and many shelter workers and school nurses report they do not have enough products to meet the need. For incarcerated individuals, guaranteed access to menstrual products is even more uncertain. In environments where there are limited or scarce menstrual products available, it is easy for menstrual products to potentially be used either for bargaining or as a means of control.

Menstruators pay an exorbitant extra amount to care for bodily functions. One study revealed the average woman spends around $6,360 on menstrual products within their reproductive lifetime (between ages 12-52). For students, inability to access menstrual products effect students’ class attendance and productivity. Over half of Massachusetts school nurses reported seeing students miss class in order to obtain menstrual products.  

In many schools, period products are available for those in need through the nurse’s office. Nonetheless, in a society that has frequently shames periods, menstruating individuals will often feel embarrassed to publicly access these resources or discuss the needs for menstrual products. Research from Southeastern YWCA highlights the extent to which menstruators feel this shame and the impact it may have on their lives. It is expected that this level of shame is only heightened for menstruators of marginalized communities, considering the extra steps required to obtain menstrual products. Within Massachusetts, understanding the current needs of menstruators is being done through a state of menstrual access survey in public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons. Even so, without more research and data, it will be difficult to fully comprehend and meet the needs of menstruators today. 

Menstrual equity extends to education, as well.

For many menstruators, their first menstrual information comes from a parental figure, guardian, or older figure; but what if they don’t have one? Young menstruators who don’t have this first information session are missing crucial period education. This leads to lack of basic knowledge, unhealthy practices, and the risk of feeling taboo when discussing periods.

Within the education setting, period education is taught in some schools as a section of health class but this is not guaranteed in every curriculum. Additionally, menstrual education is often limited to: what is a period, how it works, and how to deal with periods subtly. Oftentimes, this limited education will exclude non-menstruators and menstruators of non-conforming gender identities. This leads to a significant number of people remaining unaware of the basic facts and functions of periods and period products well into adulthood.

Non-menstruators and menstruators alike are also unaware of the number of available period products today. The current variety is no longer limited to just pads and tampons. Period products have expanded to menstrual cups, period underwear, reusable cloth pads, and menstrual, to name a few. A lack of period education does not just lead to insufficient access, but to a society that continuously enforces menstrual taboos. 

Addressing menstrual inequities requires action.

In order to end period poverty, continuous action must be taken. This means ensuring there is a continual supply of materials, available menstrual education, and work to ensure people know these resources are available.

In 2019, more than 20,000 people were homeless in Massachusetts, and it is expected that this number has only increased since the start of the pandemic. During the height of the COVID- 19 pandemic, Massachusetts shelters reported menstrual products were among the least donated items. One action you can take is to donate these products when possible. 

Within Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity (MME) Coalition is pushing “An Act to increase access to disposable menstrual products in prisons, homeless shelters, and public schools” (H.2354 & S.1445), more commonly known as the I AM bill. With half of the world menstruating, access to period products and education must be a guarantee. As of December 2, 2021, the bill was reported favorably to the Senate Ways and Means committee. Take action today by using the MME Coalition’s template to write your legislators in support of passing the I AM Bill this year. 


About YW Boston

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and F.Y.R.E. Initiative, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.

YW Boston Advocacy Committee

The Advocacy Committee supports YW Boston’s mission to eliminate racism and empower women by engaging elected officials, organizations and the public through legislative advocacy, coalition building, education, and action. The committee develops and implements the organization’s two-year advocacy agenda in order to rectify structural barriers to equity and opportunity for women, girls, and people of color.