Although the media began focusing on the menstrual product shortage in recent weeks, grassroots organization Indigenous Women Rising have been focused on the shortage since at least the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rachel Lorenzo, Mescalero Apache/Laguna Pueblo/Xicana and co-founder of IWR, said that when Tribal governments began giving out COVID care packages at the start of the pandemic, IWR assessed the gaps and noticed items missing that affected menstruating individuals and babies. Lorenzo, who uses they/them pronouns, said IWR began supplying, free of charge, menstrual cups, discs and period panties to Indigenous menstruating people in the U.S. and Canada.
“IWR started piloting a program to send reusable menstrual products to Indigenous people who are interested and [for whom] it might be out of reach financially and geographically,” they said.
Lorenzo said this is not a “catchall” solution and the price problem remains persistent.
“Not a whole lot has really changed except the cost continues to be high and we don’t have the full spectrum of menstrual products available, not only pads or tampons but cups, discs, reusable pads and period panties. People are still making decisions about whether they should spend the money to use toward gas to go to the city to get the products they need,” they said.
Time first reported the shortage problem in early June. Global supply chain issues have been blamed for the bare shelves – tampons and pads are largely made up of cotton and the price of raw cotton was 71 percent higher in April 2022 than April 2021. In addition to cotton, plastic, which is used for applicators, are both materials needed for personal protective equipment [PPE], which gained steep demand since the beginning of the pandemic. Not only are menstrual products in short supply, the products have risen in price. But, menstrual product companies owned by women have not raised their prices, according to Time.
Lorenzo noted that on Tribal lands, stores carrying menstrual products have priced the products at far higher prices than what people generally experience outside of Tribal land, even in pre-COVID times.
“The cost to get products to rural areas are not that much different from getting fresh fruit and meat to rural areas. The basic necessities we [menstruating individuals] need are just as expensive. It’s [stores on Tribal land] the only resource we have to go to, no matter the price,” Lorenzo said.
The state has been working to try to help with the baby formula shortage by creating both a Facebook page and a website to help parents locate local resources for individuals who can’t find formula during the national shortage issue. Although the federal government has also tried to ameliorate the problem by importing formula from Europe and taken other measures, some have said the problem, caused by a factory shutdown and global supply chain issues, is likely to persist until the end of summer.
But neither the state nor the federal government appear poised to try to help menstruating individuals. David Morgan, public health information officer for New Mexico Department of Health said that public health centers keep a low inventory of menstrual supplies and they are available as single-use only to individuals after a procedure. School-Based Health Centers, similarly, maintain a low supply and provide the products for single-use when students are in session, he said.
Lorenzo said that when menstruating individuals lack menstrual products, “we make do with what we have.”
They said individuals use paper towels, socks or other household items or seek out the products among community members, friends and family.
“We have been doing this since time immemorial; we always find a way to manage our periods. This is no different,” Lorenzo said.
But lacking access to menstrual products has impact, they said.
“It could keep someone from going to work or school. For some in our community, that’s not an option,” they said.
Studies in the last handful of years on what is called period poverty, which is when low-income individuals cannot afford menstrual products, have shown disparities. A recent study of college-age women who experienced period poverty found that 61.8 percent also had symptoms of moderate to severe depression.
The same study found that 10 percent of college-age women experienced period poverty every month and 14 percent experienced it at least once in 2020.
When broken down by race, period poverty differed for respondents in the study. Latina women reported period poverty the most, by 24.5 percent, followed by Black women, who experienced it 19 percent while white women experienced it 11.7 percent.
Lorenzo said that for people who have insurance or employer-based health savings accounts, menstrual products can be covered by those plans.
“But I don’t know how affordable it is for minimum wage workers to have an HS account,” they said.
A nonprofit organization called Period Equity believes that all menstrual products should be tax free since they are a basic necessity for menstruating individuals. New Mexico passed a law earlier this year that exempted menstrual products from its Gross Receipts Tax, which is similar but not identical to a sales tax. The exemption goes into effect July 1.
New Mexico will join 23 other states that do not tax menstrual products this year but 26 states have not passed laws to make menstrual products tax free.
Lorenzo said Tribal governments should provide menstrual products as “part of their obligation to care for their people.”
“We know so many other resources are out of reach. Our sexual health continues to be the one issue area that Tribes have missed the opportunity to strengthen their communities by discussing this issue with us and figuring out how we can be our own solution. There’s only so much nonprofits can do or individuals through community organizations or mutual aid. We think Tribal governments should talk to us about it because half of the population needs this, needs it every month, every day someone is in need,” they said.
Lorenzo said IWR makes reusable menstrual products available because Indigenous people have always been stewards of the land.
“Pads and tampons take space in landfills and are not the most eco-friendly,” they said.