Poor women in dire need of feminine hygiene products

Imagine being down on your luck, having to figure out how to feed your family.

Then image you are a woman of childbearing age. Which means you have monthly menstrual periods.

Where do tampons and sanitary pads fit on a list of needs when your kids are hungry?

But how do you function, even look for work, when you are bleeding, sometimes heavily, for days at a time?

Gina Jackson acknowledges that menstruation can be an awkward topic for people, but it is exactly what needs to be talked about, she maintains.

"When you say the word 'tampon,' especially to guys, they're a little apprehensive," she said. "But it's been fun getting them to realize it's a hygienic necessity and a human health issue. It's been educational for many of them."

This year the Irvine resident has been drumming up support for a new campaign to draw attention to, and provide support for, low-income and homeless women in Orange County who can't afford feminine hygiene products.

Jackson, who serves as the Orange County regional director for the anti-poverty think tank Rock and Wrap It Up, discovered that feminine hygiene products are among the most requested items at food pantries and homeless shelters — but organizations rarely have enough pads, tampons and liners to meet the needs of their clients.

So Jackson organized several donation drives and a "Mardi Bra" event recently at the Back Street Brewery in Anaheim to increase the supply for groups such as the Second Harvest Food Bank, Families Forward, Friendly Center and the OC Rescue Mission, and to raise awareness about a need that often goes unrecognized.

So far she has collected more than 11,000 individually wrapped pads, tampons and liners.

"It's the way society views women's needs," Jackson said. "We don't say what we need, and we don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, but it's as necessary as toilet paper."

Rock and Wrap It Up is part of a broader effort in California to recognize the necessity of feminine hygiene products. In January, Assembly members Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) and Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) introduced legislation to make pads, tampons and liners exempt from sales tax in the same way that other health items, including the male-impotency drug Viagra, are.

According to Garcia, women spend an average of $7 per month on feminine hygiene products for 40 years of their lives. Each year, California women pay more than $20 million in taxes on these items.

"Basically we are being taxed for being women," Garcia said in a statement. "Women have no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by women, and women of color are particularly hard hit by this tax. You can't ignore your period, it's not like you can just ignore the constant flow."

Jessie Plotkin, national asset recovery director for Rock and Wrap It Up, agreed, arguing that this isn't about optional items like condoms and deodorant.

"What we're saying is that this is a physical need," she said. "It's not about sexuality. It's not a choice. It's coming whether you're prepared or not."

One reason local food pantries and homeless shelters don't have enough feminine hygiene products to offer their clients is that organizations and donors feel uncomfortable talking about pads and tampons.

"Part of the reason we don't have things like that is because we may not ask explicitly," said Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward in Irvine. "People from my generation don't talk about tampons, sanitary pads and hygiene products. There's a shyness to do that."

Cathy Seelig, executive director of the Friendly Center in Orange, said that even when these items are specifically requested, the women don't always receive them.

"It's not the most comfortable thing to donate," she said.

Seelig added that women's needs aren't limited to hygiene products — many low-income and homeless women also struggle to get bras and underwear.

"It's all the unmentionables," she said.

Another reason organizations don't get enough donations, said Barbara Wartman, director of marketing and public relations for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, is that feminine hygiene simply doesn't come to mind for most donors.

"It's not something people think about," she said. "People aren't really thinking specifically about what are the issues you're having as you're living on the street. The most immediate needs are food and housing, but they don't think about all the attendant issues, like how do you care for yourself when you have no supplies or private space?"

As a result, organizations such as the Friendly Center, which serves 8,000 people per year, don't have enough feminine hygiene products to meet the needs of their clients.

"The site I'm located at right now, we have half a bag of pads," Seelig said. "I know another site has some tampons but no pads, and our other three sites have nothing."

Families Forward, where 65% of the families served are single mothers and their children, also don't have enough supply to meet the needs of their clients.

"Not even close," Wakeham said. "It's kind of a revolving door — it's in and it's out. Every woman or mother of a teenage daughter is going to need those products and ask for them. So if we have them, they're on their way out the minute they hit the building."

Not having regular access to feminine hygiene products can lead to difficult decisions.

"I've heard stories of women who have traded food stamps for tampons," Plotkin said.

Said Seelig: "I know with low-income families and diapers, some of our clients wash out disposable diapers and reuse them. So you can take it from there."

Jackson said she hopes that Orange County residents will continue to donate pads, tampons and liners even after her campaign. She is now working on getting donation bins placed in stores such as CVS and Ralphs to remind women to donate any time they buy products for themselves.

"My goal is to really put it in the minds of other women that because it's a monthly thing for us, that when you go buy a box every month, you buy an extra one to donate," she said. "We could make an immediate impact locally."

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