A monthly period shouldn’t stop a girl or woman from living her life.
That’s the premise behind a growing movement in Minnesota and across the globe to increase access to period products and decrease the stigma of menstruation.
More than 200 people attended a rally last fall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to draw awareness to the menstrual equity movement. A U student group, Period.MN, a branch of a broader nonprofit, also collects pads and tampons to donate to Minneapolis and St. Paul schools and Twin Cities homeless shelters.
And across Minnesota, several all-volunteer teams of the international nonprofit, Days for Girls, have started up in recent years. They sew hundreds of reusable fabric pads for girls and women in need overseas to prevent them from losing days of school or work because they can’t afford pads.
“This is a huge problem all around the world,” said Wendi Buck of Rosemount, who leads a Days for Girls team in the south metro. “There are an awful lot of problems in the world that are hard to solve, but this isn’t one of them.”
The issue is gaining more attention. In February, a bill passed in Scotland to end “period poverty,” making it the first country to provide free sanitary products to women of all ages after making them free to students in high schools, colleges and universities. In 2019, the Netflix documentary film, “Period. End of Sentence,” won an Oscar, showcasing the Pad Project’s efforts to help manufacture sanitary pads in India.
In Minnesota, the state corrections department started providing unlimited menstrual products to inmates for free in 2018. In the east metro, resident Sara Damon collected pads to send to the Botswana Book Project, which is affiliated with Minnesota’s Books for Africa. She’s continuing to collect pads for a second shipment this fall.
At the U, students are trying to help local homeless girls and women.
“They’re not going to choose period products over their next meal,” said sophomore Samantha Holtz, president of Period.MN, which started at the Twin Cities campus three years ago. “Period products are extremely expensive and not seen as a necessity.”
The group is also advocating for a state bill requiring school districts to ensure free menstrual products are available in at least one restroom at middle and high schools. So far the bill, which doesn’t include state funding, is backed by DFL legislators, but students met March 10 with legislators from both parties to confront the often taboo topic.
“People are still really afraid to talk about periods,” Holtz said.
Empowering women, girls
Days for Girls, named for its goal of giving back days that girls and women would otherwise lose at school or work during menstruation, has grown in popularity in Minnesota.
At an Eagan church, volunteers from the South of the River team have put together nearly 200 kits for girls and women in Kenya and Tanzania since starting three years ago.
In Maple Grove, Judy Johnson, a retired software developer, started a team five years ago that’s given out 4,800 kits to girls and women in 22 countries — from Vietnam to Haiti.
Her team, like others, completely relies on local donations and volunteers, even collecting leftover fabric from quilters to make the pads.
“I always feel women have gotten the short end of the stick. You shouldn’t be dictated just by a biological function,” said Johnson, whose Days for Girls’ work has become much like a full-time job as she organizes several “sew-a-thons” each month to make the kits.
“This is not a women’s issue; this is a human issue.”
Johnson said the kits help girls and women in impoverished countries who would otherwise use materials like newspapers or cardboard to manage the flow of their periods. Instead, colorful reusable fabric pads help them stay in school and at work, empowering them to succeed.
“I think world peace is possible with a maxi pad,” she said. “We have a long ways to go.”
Kits and education
In Minneapolis, dozens of women gather every other week to sew and assemble kits for the Days for Girls Twin Cities team that started three years ago. They’ve put together about 3,500 kits, each of which costs about $10 and lasts three years.
“We know we’re giving hope,” said Judy McClellan of Minneapolis, a retiree who co-founded the team. “It evens the playing field … it’s a no-brainer.”
The kits, which come with underwear, a wash cloth, soap and reusable pads, are distributed by volunteers when they’re on personal trips abroad.
When McLellan was on a church trip to Peru, she distributed kits to about 100 girls and women. A 12-year-old girl hugged her afterward, saying, “Thank you for helping me take care of myself.”
The volunteers don’t just hand out pads; they teach the girls and women about everything from women’s anatomy to self-defense.
The Twin Cities team is even discussing providing kits locally to immigrants and girls and women in need, but must do more fundraising to expand.
Kathy Erickson of Minneapolis co-founded the Twin Cities team after a trip to a Kenya school, where she heard girls were without underwear or period products.
“I was horrified about it,” said Erickson, a St. Paul teacher. She has since self-funded 10 trips to Kenya to give out kits, trying to make a lasting impact beyond just providing a pad.
“There’s not another project that, for $10 to $12, can keep girls in school, out of a lot of danger and hygienically safe,” she said. “I’ve seen the changed girls.”