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In defense of Project Soterra: Period Poverty is real

By Jayne Flores

The March 2024 issue of the Pacific Island Times has long-time journalist Mar-Vic Cagurangan railing against the government’s purchase of menstrual products for indigent females in our public schools.

After citing and then ignoring several credible sources literally outlining the reality of period poverty around the world, Cagurangan calls our Guam law mandating the government to provide free menstrual products in publicly funded schools “the height of the nanny state fever.”


If you had talked to at least one public school nurse about this topic, you would not have written this incredibly obtuse column. But since you did, allow me to enlighten you.


Guam’s Period Poverty Act of 2021 came about because Stephanie Lorenzo, then-Speaker of the Guam Youth Congress, wrote the bill after seeing the results of a Bureau of Women’s Affairs 2019 survey of Department of Public Health and Social Services clients.

This survey, for which we received 288 responses from 350 surveys distributed (an 82 percent response rate), revealed that 72 percent of respondents said period products are too expensive.

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Instead, they told us they use paper towels, cut-up old clothes or rags, tissue, napkins, socks, or toilet paper. The most heartbreaking response came from 33 females who resorted to their baby’s used disposable diapers if the baby had only urinated.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said one or more females in their household stayed home from school because of a lack of products; 24 percent stayed home from work for that reason.


Lorenzo, now a social worker with the Department of Youth Affairs, was a sophomore at Tiyan High School when she “saw it firsthand.” Some of her classmates were forced to stay home because they didn’t have menstrual pads.


When BWA first teamed up with Island Girl Power to highlight this issue, we asked women’s clubs to donate menstrual products to public schools. NAWIC - the National Association of Women in Construction - adopted Inarajan Middle School. The first time NAWIC ladies and I walked into IMS loaded with pads, the admin staff and school nurse almost cried. “Our girls need this so much,” they all told us. At another middle school, the nurse started having girls sign in to get pads (they only give out two or three per day) because some were coming in every week in order to bring pads to females at home.


You “find it hard to believe that people can’t afford to buy feminine products.” The Guam Census data shows that 20 percent of our population has an income below the poverty level. Nearly 22 percent of households are on food stamps. Minors comprise 27 percent of our population. At GDOE, over half of the students come from households on public assistance.


It is important to note that both food stamps and the WIC (Women-Infants-Children) public benefits do NOT cover the cost of menstrual products. So if your choice is between buying food for your kids or buying pads for yourself, most moms are going to break out the rags so their kids have enough to eat. They don’t have the cash to spend on even the cheapest $2.50 package of pads.


Of course, parents should be providing these products for their female children. But the reality is that many cannot afford to because they have to pay rent and buy food and gas. Again, food stamps do not cover this cost. And unfortunately, in a growing number of cases, a parent or parents may be spending what cash they do have on drugs or alcohol.


None of this is the child’s fault. So we provide menstrual products to help girls stay in school. And yes, statistics do show that girls perform better in school than boys - when they can attend. We can teach “personal responsibility and overcoming obstacles” all we want - but if you don’t have something to bleed into, you have to stay home one week out of every month.


You call this legislation “a slippery slope,” claiming that soon governments may be buying toothpaste or deodorant for every citizen. That’s a ridiculous argument. If you don’t have toothpaste, you can still go to school - you can rinse your mouth out with water. No deodorant? Wet a cloth and wipe your afa’fa’ so they don’t smell.


But there is nothing females can do to stop the blood flowing from between their legs every month. And if their parents don’t provide them with menstrual pads, sure - they can resort to rags, paper towels, or other items that leak. If a girl has an accident at school, often she is so mortified she will just stay home for her entire cycle thereafter.


And just because we have women leaders doesn’t mean “menstruation does not bring about ‘stigma, discrimination, and restrictions’” in this part of the world.


Nurses and health teachers tell me they’ve had girls thinking something is wrong with them because they’ve started to bleed “down there.” No one at home has told them anything about puberty or the changes their body is going through. Especially in families from the outer islands, the stigma is still very real. And yes, health classes should be teaching both girls and boys about how their bodies work. But that’s another issue entirely.


Bringing this problem to the forefront helps on several levels. Girls don’t miss school. We teach boys respect for the fact that girls menstruate. The more we encourage respect for one another, the more we can tackle our high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.


And no, it is not a case of “inculcating a sense of dependence at an early age and introducing the idea that the government must do everything for them,” as you claim. It is helping girls empower themselves by giving those in need a helping hand so they can succeed.


Just because you never experienced period poverty - or never knew about it - doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. 

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