Addressing 'period poverty'
This column is going to get a bit graphic, so if you are a man, and you are squeamish about that monthly time for the females in your household, you can stop reading now.
In a moment, I am going to share a telephone conversation between a very nice elderly CHamoru man and myself, following my radio conversation with K57’s Patti Arroyo about my confirmation hearing as the newly appointed director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs. I had been talking with Patti about several initiatives that I am pursuing – two of them being an awareness campaign about sexual assault from the male perspective, and a program to help people (of any gender) who need to get their high school equivalency in order to get a job and become economically sustainable.
We also spoke about a concept that I learned about in my new role, called “period poverty.” Having had three daughters but also having had the means to supply them with a variety of feminine hygiene products, I am embarrassed to admit that I never thought about the fact that these products are expensive, and that there are many women and girls on this island who simply cannot afford them. So what do they do? They use rags, or toilet paper, or they simply stay home for a few days every month, in a somewhat modern-day version of the “red tent” concept highlighted in the Anita Diamant novel about women in biblical times.
Always, a maker of feminine hygiene products, has a global campaign to #EndPeriodPoverty. According to their website, Always Confidence & Puberty Surveys done in 2017 and just last year revealed that “nearly one in five American girls and one in seven Canadian girls have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to period products.”
That’s in the continental U.S. and Canada. Here, where Department of Public Health and Social Services officials tell me that approximately 34 percent of our population receive either welfare and/or food stamps, the percentage of women and girls who have to improvise on a monthly basis is probably higher.
I am embarrassed to admit that I never thought about the fact that these products are expensive, and that there are many women and girls on this island who simply cannot afford them. So what do they do? They use rags, or toilet paper, or they simply stay home for a few days every month.
My office is working on some surveys to get actual numbers, so that Guam can be a possible recipient of the commitment by Always to donate 16 million pads worldwide to schoolgirls in need. I spoke to two public school nurses recently about “period poverty.” The high school nurse told me she requests sanitary pads every year in her office supply list but that they never come (probably due to budget constraints – one package can run you from $7 - $10 depending on the brand). So she buys her own, and “charges” the girls 50 cents per pad.
Many can’t pay, so she has them write IOUs, which most never settle. A middle school nurse told me the same thing. Although some states have required schools to provide these products, looking to our government is probably not an option at this budgetary point. So the Bureau of Women’s Affairs is reaching out to #EndPeriodPoverty.
My office is also working with Island Girl Power on a sewing project whereby a group of women from Micronesia are making reusable pads. These can be washed and worn again. Of course, this is only do-able if you are at home, because at school or work, this concept can quickly become unsanitary. I am also (forewarning here) going to reach out to women’s clubs for donations to public middle and high school nurses’ offices.
In the 34th Guam Legislature, Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee introduced a bill to have these necessary feminine hygiene products exempted from the gross receipts tax, but says she received an incredible amount of negative feedback – mostly from elderly CHamoru men. Which brings me to my conversation with the nice elderly CHamoru man who called me following my K57 appearance:
Man: Mrs. Flores, you are doing a great job, but I want to ask you, what about the men? Men need equality too. Some men have to wear diapers, nai.
Me: Well, sir, some elderly women have to wear diapers, too.
Man: Yeah, but men, we have need too, like soap and things, and where’s the equality?
Me (realizing that I now have to get a bit graphic in order to make the point about the necessity of these products for women): Sir, both men and women have to wear diapers sometimes. Both men and women need soap, and shampoo, and other products. But sir, only women bleed every month.
Man: (pause) Ai. Well, God bless you. You are doing a good job.
Me: Si Yu’os Ma’ase, sir. I really appreciate your call. God bless you too.
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Jayne Flores, a longtime journalist, is now the acting director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs of the government of Guam. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.