COVID-19 has brought on conditions which remind us that access to menstrual products is a key component of equity in the United States and around the world. Menstrual products were among the items which ran low in grocery stores as folx rushed to stock their houses. As Dana Marlowe, founder of I Support the Girls, noted: “While the wealthy can stockpile goods, people who live paycheck to paycheck cannot.” This leaves others, including those who have lost their jobs or who are unable to regularly reach stores, without access to an essential item.
While the extreme circumstances of COVID-19 have intensified the problem of access to menstrual products, this issue is not limited to times of global pandemic. Today, in all but 19 states, menstrual products are not tax-exempt. In these states, menstrual products are not considered necessities or non-luxury items, such as groceries, medical purchases, and agriculture supplies. In Texas, the category of “necessities” includes select cowboy boots, Viagra, and dandruff shampoo, but not menstrual products.
I spent Summer 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon, with the UT Austin Hygiene, Empowerment and Research for Social Impact (HERS) team. We worked alongside students at the Lebanese American University and Lebanese Red Cross staff to address obstacles to menstrual products access during humanitarian crises. The broader goal of the project was to develop strategies to provide widespread access to menstrual products in crises situations. Participants of the study included Syrian refugees living in Saida who had little to no access to work due to their status in the country. In the context of this protracted refugee crisis in Lebanon, HERS found that the primary barriers to menstrual supplies were financial. In some ways, the conditions brought on by COVID-19 resemble those that we observed among refugees displaced by war. During COVID, individuals have been isolated and surviving with limited finances and opportunities for paid work. Barriers to menstrual products is one of the many ways in which social inequities have surfaced. These commonalities between our HERS research and current COVID circumstances remind us about the common ways that inequity is reproduced globally, from Lebanon to Texas and beyond.
The HERS Project and the work of other menstruation advocates and research highlight that access to menstrual products determines a person’s ability to human rights including education, work, health care, and self-actualization. In the US, one in five teens have struggled to afford menstrual products or have not been able to purchase them at all, and 84 percent of students reported missing time in class or knowing someone who had due to lack of access to menstrual products. HERS’ research showed that previous lack of attention to menstrual equity in international crises responses led displaced populations to seek out alternative and often unsafe solutions. For trans men who menstruate, the inability to manage menstruation can cause physical and personal danger by “outing” them.
Advocates in the Texas legislature have been fighting to eliminate sales tax on menstrual products for years. Senator Garcia and Senator Rodriguez introduced a bill in 2017, but it was declared dead upon arrival. Rep. Howard sponsored a bill in 2019 only to see it meet the same fate. As menstrual equity advocates continue to push for bills in the 2021 session, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act signed by President Trump has brought in a quiet victory. As of March 27, 2020, menstrual products are a qualified medical expense under the IRS Tax Code. This means that menstrual products can be purchased with health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) throughout the US. Seeing as there is no plan in place to maintain protection over menstrual products post COVID-19, the CARES act should be used to build upon existing advocacy efforts. The CARES act is an opportunity to remind Texas legislators of the importance of menstrual equity at all times, with or without a global pandemic.Without discounting the victory of the CARES act, it is important to remember that this is a short-term solution which only helps a small portion of the population. Health savings accounts are an employee benefit, which means people without an account will not benefit from this change. This includes vulnerable communities, such as people without health-insurance and undocumented people. In order to assure menstrual equity for all, we must continue to bring this issue to the forefront of policy conversations and maintain what the CARES Act recognizes: menstrual products are part of medical care. This policy brief invites consideration of menstrual products as necessary medical care which is critical for people’s ability to engage in workplace, family, and civic life.