YWCA’s Project Period brings awareness to tampon tax, poverty and shaming women’s bodies

Volunteers with the YWCA's Latina Leadership Initiative, Blanca Santos and Gloria Reteria, remember growing up with their mothers cutting pieces of cloth that would then be washed and reused when they, and their daughters, got their periods.

Trying to survive on low income, pads and tampons were not a priority for either family.

"And I am sure a lot of women are doing the same thing right now," Santos says. In her family of four, three are women, so the tampons and pads cost gets pretty expensive.

On average, a box of tampons could cost up to nearly $5, and the same goes for pads. Women can go through a box every period, depending on how long the cycle lasts. According to the YWCA of Southern Arizona, which has gathered information from several sources, women spend up to $20,000 over a lifetime on issues related to their menstrual cycles, including buying tampons and pads.

Thankfully, Santos says, she and her husband are able to afford these expenses.

Sadly, that's not the case for the 20 percent of Arizona women living in poverty, and the hundreds of Tucson's homeless women who, on top of everything else, don't even have regular access to bathrooms. Many have to decide between milk and eggs, or tampons and pads.

In Reteria's case, she hasn't had to worry about tampons and pads for a while. But she doesn't have to look much further than her neighbors to witness the struggle of trying to maintain a steady surplus of feminine products, as well as food and basic needs, in a nearby single-mother household with a 14-year-old daughter, and three other children.

Recently, the 14-year-old girl came to Reteria and shamefully asked her if she had any tampons or pads. It was the third time the girl had gotten her period, and her mom couldn't afford any.

"Now, every time I go to the grocery store, I buy her a package," Reteria says as she begins to cry. She's aware that not every woman can turn to a neighbor, or anyone, for this kind of support. "We have to speak up. There are so many women who need help."

About one month ago, the YWCA launched a campaign to encourage donations of tampons, sanitary pads, and other feminine hygiene products for homeless women and women living in poverty.

At the core of it Project Period, "This is an economic issue, a dignity issue, a basic human rights issue [and] a health issue," says YWCA CEO Kelly Fryer. As of the most-recent count in the beginning of this week, the nonprofit has received close to 15,000 donations. Their goal for the year is 100,000. "What can we do, in terms of policies, to make these products more accessible?"

Ideally, the changes need to happen from the top, addressing the so-called "tampon tax," which only continues to fuel the idea that pads, tampons and other feminine products are "luxury" items and not a basic necessity. These products are only exempt from sales taxes in a handful of states, including Minnesota, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In fact, more states tax tampons than candy and soda, including Arizona, where neither of the latter have a sales tax.

Women on food stamps cannot use the benefit to purchase tampons or pads, again, because they are considered luxury products.

As of now, there hasn't been a bill introduced in the Arizona Legislature that addresses the tampon tax, and this doesn't surprise Fryer.

"It is barely coming into focus for people across the country, and also here in Arizona," she says, adding that a California state lawmaker recently proposed getting rid of the tampon tax. "Our focus these couple of months is creating infrastructure for the collection drive and contribution locally. [Then] developing a strategy for addressing the policy-related issues in Arizona, both as a state and locally."

In the spring, she says the YWCA will begin to work with members of the state Legislature and also the Tucson City Council to address the options.

As far as the city goes, this issue hasn't really been discussed much either.

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich says they would need to explore whether the city can even "carve out of the general sales tax items like that." And also look into whether there are other items that "one might argue to also be considered as vital and critical like diapers for infants and adults, and other types of medical supplies," she says.

"I certainly would be interested in hearing a proposal and getting more information to have some consideration occur," she adds.

With Project Period, the YWCA wants to also fuel conversations about shaming women's bodies—the one-sided perspective of being a sexual being, but when it comes to everything else, such as periods and breast-feeding, well, let's not talk about it because it makes others uncomfortable. The effects of not speaking about these very natural occurrences can trickle down to communities not being aware that there are millions of women in this country who can't access tampons or pads, and who are in desperate need of these types of donations. Fryer says it's about assuring women that it is OK to ask for help, whether at a local organization or even the workplace.

Next week, the YWCA will start distributing the donations at the organizations that have partnered up with Project Period: Emerge Center for Domestic Violence, Primavera, Our Family Services, Child and Family Resources, Southern Arizona Community Food Bank, Teen Outreach Pregnancy Services, the Haven and Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network. By the end of January, the YWCA will establish more donation centers.

"If a mom has $20 to spend, and she needs formula for her baby, of course she is going to choose the formula. We want all women to have [tampons and pads] available, it's about social justice for women," says Alba Jaramillo, program manager of the YWCA's Women Out Of Poverty and Latina Leadership initiatives. "We want legislative changes, but what can we do now? This is a movement for women."

If you are interested in donating, visit the YWCA, 525 N. Bonita Ave. or call 884-7810.

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