The Connecticut legislature has just enacted a law that will require school systems to make feminine hygiene products available in all public schools starting in September 2024. This is a big step that begins to address the difficulty some women in our state – especially younger women – face because of their inability to pay for these products.
Connecticut is doing its part to raise awareness of an issue many feel uncomfortable discussing. The willingness of state lawmakers to pay attention and take positive steps is a testament to the character of our policymakers and more importantly the people who have put them in office through their vote.
Lacking the financial resources to afford basic hygiene needs often results in embarrassment, shame, and stigma. It also affects the ability of women to contribute fully in the workplace and can have an even more dramatic effect on school-age girls who must meet the challenges of school, growing up, and fitting in.
The cost of menstrual hygiene products is not covered by government food assistance programs. In Connecticut, these products are no longer subject to sales taxes as they are in many states, but consistent price increases that became the norm during the pandemic remain frequent. The result puts many girls and women with limited or no income at a disadvantage, affecting both their physical and mental health. Teens are often forced to miss school and adults are often forced to miss work to avoid uncomfortable situations.
Awareness of this issue, known as “period poverty,” is growing. As more people find out about this challenge, many want to help, but it is important to help in a way that doesn’t make the problem worse.
Here’s how things can begin to go wrong: It is natural for people who want to help address the lack of menstrual products in their community to go out and buy those products off the shelf, at a local retailer, and then donate them directly to women or through a third party. This well-intentioned approach can lead to shortages and price increases that put feminine hygiene products out of reach for more women in the affected geographic area. Suddenly, women who were stretching resources to access hygiene products find themselves under increased financial strain, forced to make choices between hygiene and other basic needs. The sincere effort to help can inadvertently create a “hygiene desert” similar to the food deserts that exist in communities without convenient grocery stores.
There are ways to avoid creating hygiene deserts while providing women and girls with the products they need.
The non-profit organization Dignity Grows, founded four years ago in Connecticut and now boasting 59 chapters across 25 states, has pioneered the way. Dignity Grows assembles and distributes tote bags containing basic personal hygiene products, including menstrual products, to women and girls who need help accessing these common self-care items.
The organization has distributed approximately 50,000 tote bags a year nationwide since the program’s inception, but the need is much greater. Dignity Grows observed the debilitating impact of hygiene deserts on communities and designed a model for directly purchasing non-branded products that were never meant to be sold in retail stores. Using this approach reduces costs, allows access to more inventory, and in turn helps more women and girls who cannot afford basic hygiene products. In this way, hygiene resources are increased rather than clearing affordable options from local store shelves.
The challenge of period poverty has been hidden for decades in our country in part because the topic is considered personal, sensitive, and hard to talk about. Philanthropic and policy leaders are shedding light on the issue of period poverty and enlisting more and more people who want to help. Thanks to that empathetic enthusiasm, Dignity Grows is realizing how best to implement programs that serve the greatest number of women who deal with period poverty.
In this case, the organization has learned it can reach more women if hygiene products are sourced directly from manufacturers who share the same goal.
Lindsey Carlisle lives in West Hartford.