What is period poverty? Native American women work to address issue

By providing free tampons and pads to people in rural areas, these women are addressing period poverty with dignity.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

During class, Tierra Baird felt her period start and rushed to the bathroom. She tried to get a tampon from the machine, but it was broken. Baird, a sophomore at the time, didn’t have one because her family couldn’t afford them.

“I couldn’t access tampons,” the now 17-year-old high school senior told TODAY. “Money was a little bit tight. I would ask some friends for tampons when I needed them. I would be too embarrassed so it was something I wouldn’t talk about.”

Sanitary products can be costly, and especially hard to get on Native American reservations.Courtesy of The Kwek Society

Her parents were divorcing and the family experienced a “dark time” financially. They struggled to provide tampons and pads for Baird. While it was temporary, she knows others at Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota, who are chronically affected by period poverty.

“I know a lot of young women who are my friends and classmates who experience that problem,” she said.

What’s period poverty?

Period poverty is an inability for people who menstruate to purchase sanitary products. According to a 2017 study conducted by the feminine product brand Always, one in five American girls left school or missed school because they didn’t have pads or tampons.

“This problem affects those with periods including the homeless, the incarcerated and even in a space you wouldn’t expect — working families," Tara Bruley, 39, founder of Be Prepared Period, a menstruation resource for girls and their parents, told TODAY.

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The reservation where Baird lives is impoverished. During recent flooding, they were without water and electricity for a week. And, it’s isolated, which makes it harder to get feminine necessities. It’s an hour drive to Walmart, and an hour and a half drive to the nearest town.

“It is incredibly difficult to have resources,” Clare Huerter, the principal at Red Cloud High School, told TODAY. “There is a store in town, but prices are just insane."

Making feminine products free and available

Eva Marie Carney, 60, founded the Kwek Society in September 2018 (Kwek means women in Potawatomi, a Native American language) to provide free tampons and pads to schools like Red Cloud, after she learned how much more expensive tampons and pads were on Native American reservations. Carney, who lives in Virginia, is a member and representative of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Native American tribe.

With the Kwek Society, Carney regularly approaches communities and schools to ask if they need supplies, like pads and tampons. To date, the organization has helped provide products (or raise money for products) to 23 schools and communities.

Period poverty exists in many pockets of the U.S., including Native American communities, particularly in rural areas,” Carney told TODAY. “It starts with the fact that there are few jobs and few commercial businesses. The cost of period supplies is very high and the money to pay for them isn’t there.”

Eva Marie Carney started the Kwek Society to help Native American girls have access to sanitary products. Courtesy of The Kwek Society

“Girls and young women are missing school for all or part of the time that they have their periods. They are suffering the indignities of using things other than pads or tampons like wadded up toilet paper,” she explained.

This can have an impact on their mental health as well as their physical health.

“Denying access to sanitary products ... robs those who menstruate of basic dignity,” said Bruley, the Seattle-based creator of Be Prepared Period, who hopes to spread education about menstruation.

Baird, who has gone without access to feminine hygiene products, agreed.

“I just thought, ‘Why do women have to go through something that can traumatize them?” she said.

That sparked an idea for Baird’s senior project, providing schools with machines with free pads and tampons. She used a $1,000 grant she won to install machines in the bathrooms. Around the same time, Carney approached the school to provide free pads and tampons.

“It was absolutely perfect. It is just aligning really well with what the students want and need,” the principal of Red Cloud High School said.

Next year, Baird will be attending Stanford University and hopes to pursue a health-related degree so she can further help Native American girls and women.

Native American volunteers sew first moon time bags, which the Kwek Society gives to girls experiencing their first period.Courtesy of The Kwek Society

“Period poverty has been getting the attention it deserves and has resulted in legislation being passed to require state facilities like schools to provide products to low-income individuals,” Bruley said.

While 10 states have eliminated the “pink tax” on sanitary products, people living in other states still pay extra for the monthly supplies. The women agree that real change won't happen until period shaming ends.

“Openly discussing the issue is one of the best ways that everyone can help. Reduce the stigma,” Bruley said.

Individuals can donate pads and tampons to food pantries and homeless shelters. To donate visit the Kwek Society.