Ashley Novoa. Photo by Sam Stroozas.

Every menstruator has either had to quietly ask for a tampon or supplied the goods to someone through hushed tones in a bathroom stall.  It’s a game of exchange we know too well, because we know how uncomfortable it is to continue without the necessity of a menstrual product.

Being prepared for your menstrual cycle is a privilege, and one that not everyone can afford. The average menstruator will spend $1,773.33 on tampons before menopause, and this is just on tampons alone, often the favored product. It doesn’t factor in the stained underwear and pants that need replacing, pain medication, doctors’ visits, birth control, panty liners, pads and more.

Period poverty exists when menstruators do not have access to menstrual products, washing facilities, and waste management. When periods are already an experience coated in shame, asking for help comes with its own stigma.If you’re lucky, your school or workplace might charge 25 cents or $1 for a large firm tampon in a cardboard applicator in the gendered women’s bathroom. These are the worst kind of tampons – the ones none of us would use unless we really need to.

But what if you’re already facing poverty, then where do you go? 29 percent of residents in Chicago live below the poverty line and one in seven Chicago students experience homelessness. For these Chicagoans, purchasing menstrual products may not be at the top of their to-do list.

In 2018, Illinois pushed to end the “tampon tax,” a luxury tax added to menstrual products. While the products are no longer taxed, the cost still adds up. 

The Chicago Period Project on the West Side 

Ashley Novoa grew up in Pilsen and started the Chicago Period Project in 2016. When she was growing up, she relied on her local Planned Parenthood for services, but period poverty wasn’t something she thought about often. That was until she watched a video on Bustle.

“I just felt compelled to do something,” Novoa said. “As I began collecting supplies, people said the same thing to me – they never really thought about this particular need within the homeless community, so that pushed me to look more into it. Especially in Chicago, there are few resources. With it being such a large city, you would think there would be more organizations and I decided I wanted to become that organization.”

Novoa set out with empowerment in mind. Her goal has been providing products and access to menstruators across the city. Since 2016, over 600,000 products have been donated through the Chicago Period Project, helping almost 50,000 cycles of periods. 

It’s key for Novoa that inclusivity is at the root of the campaign. She always says “menstruator”  when talking about periods, not “women or girls,” because when the conversation is gendered, people are left behind. As she explained, not everyone who menstruates is a woman and not all women menstruate.

“It’s a huge part of our mission to make sure we are here for all menstruators,” she said. “Society puts these unfortunate norms on us that we think are a women’s issue, but we are trying to chip away at that little by little.”

Photo from the Period Collective Instagram.

The Period Collective in Northern Illinois

If someone is experiencing period poverty, it is likely that other parts of their life intersect to create further disenfranchisement. Ida Melbye, the founder and executive director of the Period Collective, works to address period poverty in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

“Period poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum where nothing else is going on in these people’s lives,” she said.

Melbye explained that every menstruator can empathize with the feelings surrounding period poverty and, like Novoa, she wanted to do more.

The Period Collective works to distribute products through its partners across the community. Menstrual products are often not donated to homeless shelters and other help centers, even though they are some of the most needed products. This is where the Period Collective and Chicago Period Project step in to fill the gaps.

Without their work, many menstruators would continue using items like toilet paper, socks or towels due to lack of access. It often comes down to deciding to feed yourself or your kids or buying a box of tampons.

“We want to help anyone who is menstruating, anyone with a period should have the products they need,” Melbye said.

While Novoa is based out of the west side and Melbye covers surrounding counties, Chez Smith had a different part of the city in mind – reaching young people in Chicago’s south side.

Chez Smith. Photo from Gyrls in the Hood Instagram.

Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. on the South Side

Period poverty is not created equally. When considering geographic and economic segregation in the city, the West and South sides undoubtedly endure period poverty more so than the North side and other affluent neighborhoods.

Smith was born and raised in Englewood – “southside all her life,” as she says. She is the founder of Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. foundation. She worked on different community youth organizations for Cook County when she realized that many young people didn’t have prevention education, and instead, are left with questions.

“We expect young people to make good choices without the information to do so,” Smith said. “They don’t put it together because they don’t know.”

After watching young women come in with repeat STI cases, she knew she had to do something. While Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. works to end period poverty, it’s also an organization rooted in equitable sexual health and reproductive justice education. In addition to Gyrls in the H.O.O.D., Smith runs a sub-organization called “Degrees B4 Diapers” to empower young women to finish their high school degrees and stay in school.

Another area that period poverty affects is education. Smith noticed this when she found out that many young menstruators stay home because they don’t have the products they need, therefore missing more days of school and further increasing the education gap.

When young menstruators do go to school without menstrual products, they endure a top fear of anyone on their period – bleeding through their pants. For Chicago students with uniform requirements, this means bleeding through their khakis, an unforgiving shade of light brown.

Smith’s organization provides “hood kits” that include items like tampons, pads, panty liners, soap, lotion, and underwear. Menstruators can request a kit online, and Smith will hand-deliver it. She also distributes kits at community events and has begun partnering with schools, but she is still often questioned – “Can’t they just afford a box of tampons?”To that, Smith explains the real disparity.

“The cost is a barrier for a lot of people, but when I tell people that, some people get it and some people don’t. they say ‘oh well, they can just go to the Dollar Tree and get some,’ but do you get yours from the Dollar Tree?” Smith asked. “People feel like because these girls are low income and live in the hood they should accept less and have inadequate supplies.”

When menstruators use lower-quality products, the difference in quality is overwhelmingly obvious.

If you are someone you know is experiencing period poverty, contact the Chicago Period Project, the Period Collective or Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. to find out how to receive free products. The Chicago Period Project also provides stocked spaces across the city with supplies. View the interactive map for locations. 

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is the sexual health and reproductive justice fellow for Rebellious Magazine and a freelance journalist based in Chicago covering gender and social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.