COLOMBIA – Period poverty, or the inability to purchase menstrual products, has become a public health problem in Missouri.
“There are so many women and girls who miss school and miss work because they can’t access the products they need to manage their periods,” said Muriel Smith, executive director of the St. Louis Menstrual Coalition.
In Missouri alone, one in six women and girls suffer from menstrual poverty, Smith said. She also said it mostly affects women and girls of color who fall at or below the federal poverty line.
“This is a particular burden for low-income women who are already paid less,” Smith said. “And then you lose four work days a month, so you lose that income.”
The Alliance for Period Supplies reports that nearly two-thirds of Missouri women struggle with this on an annual basis. Poor menstruation can cause stress for those who suffer from it for long periods of time.
“It’s such an emotional and mental loss when you miss school or work, month after month,” Smith said. “Not everyone in the United States has a period, and so people don’t think about luxury taxes for basic needs like pads and tampons.”
Missouri is one of 26 US states that impose a sales tax on period products. The tax on luxury goods is 4.25%, which is a burden on those already struggling to purchase basic hygiene products. Moreover, there is an increase in the costs of hygiene products after the cotton shortage last summer.
Some mid-Missouri organizations are stepping forward to help combat period poverty in the community. For example, the Columbia Public Library has partnered with Aunt Flow to offer free period products to employees and library patrons.
“I think people are just beginning to realize that period products—like toilet paper and soap—are just a basic human need,” said Erin Magner, associate director of the library. “It is definitely time for this to be published in libraries.”
They began rolling out free dispensers in women’s and unisex restrooms in the spring of 2022, Magner said. The idea originated from Megan Durham, a youth services librarian, she said.
“I think a lot of people say, ‘Well, I advocate pigeons,’” Durham said.
Durham suggested getting distributors of free period products after attending a training at another bookstore.
“We took a bathroom break, and I saw her in the bathroom,” Durham said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God we need this!'”
Now, users can go into any of the CPL bathrooms with a dispenser and get as many tampons or pads as they need. They do not have to notify any library staff that they are taking supplies, and guardians check regularly to refill supplies.
“I hope it’s normal to talk about period products and our bodies,” said Magner. “I hope that takes away a lot of the stress that I think a lot of women feel when they’re stuck somewhere and can’t get to these products.”
Durham said she hopes talking about periods now normalizes the conversation for future generations.
“I have daughters, and I have friends with little girls,” said Durham. “I don’t want people to suffer the stigma that I feel like a lot of people my age and older have grown up with this shameful and secretive thing.”
Magner said they hope to have free dispensers in all Daniel Boone Regional Library restrooms by 2023.
“There are a lot of parents and guardians who may not be able to enter the female-only bathroom,” Magner said. “We just want to make sure that they and their families have access to these products.”
While Aunt Flow offers an educational discount, this does not cover the full cost of this initiative.
“It’s an initiative that the library feels strongly about,” Magner said. “So we support her financially.”
She said the money comes from the library’s operating budget. However, she said that there are grants for libraries that are unable to financially support her initiative.
“I hope this will encourage other people in other public libraries in Missouri to adopt a similar initiative,” Magner said.
Magner said she hopes the library will continue to fight period poverty for years to come.
“It’s not something we should be ashamed of,” Magner said. “It’s a completely normal human body function, and it’s important that we, as a society, recognize that.”
Durham said she feels very passionate about the project and helping the community in any way she can.
“It’s not something that’s a choice like we just need to provide,” Durham said. “Give All Period Products Away!”