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Gupta's study is being used to call for new laws to address the unmet needs of menstrual health.
Jhumka Gupta, ScD, MPH, associate professor in the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Global and Community Health, says that she has always been drawn to research that seeks to “bring the ‘hidden side’ of things out in the open: such as violence against women and girls and refugee populations.” It’s only fitting that her recent work is receiving attention in the policymaking world by shining a light on a topic most people haven’t heard of: period poverty.
What is period poverty? Gupta explains that it’s a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and other unmet menstrual health needs. It’s a topic that Gupta says is under-researched and under-funded.
“When you look at menstrual hygiene products, it’s a basic need, just like housing, food, and shelter, which are all well-documented as having critical public health implications,” says Gupta.
“Menstruation is something that impacts nearly all women and girls and other menstruators. You can assume that if people are struggling to pay for food, then they probably don’t have much money for menstrual products,” says Lauren Cardoso, study coordinator and lead author on the study. Menstrual products cost an average of $10 per month, according to one calculator, and are subject to state sales taxes in 27 states according to Period Equity.
Gupta and her team published a recent study that found that more than 14% of college women had experienced period poverty in the past year, and 10% experienced period poverty every month. Importantly, women who experience period poverty are more likely to report depression than those who did not. For example, more than two-thirds (68%) of the women who report period poverty every month report moderate or severe depression, and more than half (61.2%) of those who reported period poverty at some point in the last year reported moderate or severe depression. This contrasts with fewer than half (43%) of women who did not report period poverty at any point in the last year.
Bringing Period Poverty to the National Spotlight
Gupta’s research on period poverty, and more broadly, stigma and menstrual health, is helping to inform a national policy discussion on health equity, reaching well beyond the public health community.
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) has referenced Gupta’s research in support of legislation for menstrual equity.
“Period poverty impacts every part of our society–from housing to healthcare; from economic justice to education,” says Rep. Meng.
“For students, the inability to afford period products can severely inhibit their educational outcomes and mental wellbeing. Dr. Gupta’s work has highlighted how pervasive the problem of period poverty is among college-age women,” Rep. Meng says.
“When the study came out, it garnered a lot of media attention,” says Gupta. “Dr. Meng’s office shared the study on their social media, which was pretty exciting because she’s done really great work, whether it’s on period poverty or immigrant rights.”
After Gupta saw her research referenced on Rep. Meng’s social media, she reached out to Meng’s office to share additional resources. Rep. Meng’s office then proposed a meeting between Meng and Gupta. They met in June to talk about the results of her study and how Gupta could help inform Rep. Meng’s period poverty legislation in the future.
In May 2021, Meng introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021, aimed at increasing access to menstrual products, and she met with Gupta to learn more about her work.
“These data are crucial to informing legislative solutions to combat period poverty, such as the grant program I introduced in my Menstrual Equity for All Act, which would incentivize colleges and universities to pilot free menstrual product programs on their campuses,” says Meng. “I applaud Dr. Gupta for her work and am grateful for her leadership on this research.”
Study Points to Racial Inequities; Mental Health Connection
The study’s findings also point to inequities in period poverty experiences. Black and Latina women reported the highest levels of period poverty experiences (19% and 24.5% respectively). Similar patterns were also seen for immigrant and first-generation students.
Women who experienced period poverty reported borrowing menstrual products, using other non-menstrual products (e.g., toilet paper or fabric), using pads or tampons longer than recommended, or going without them entirely during menstruation.
“One of the big takeaways from the study is that there were inequities reflected in the data,” Gupta says. “Unfortunately, that’s really not surprising because these patterns reflect what we see in other data and research about other types of health and social inequities in this country.”
“Future work really needs to dive deeper into these inequities,” says Gupta. “This issue of period poverty, and more broadly menstrual equity, can—and should—be integrated into broader research areas.”
Gupta also says that connecting period poverty to an existing public health issue, namely, student mental health, was an important part of this study.
“What I’ve heard from menstrual health advocates is that knowing the prevalence of period poverty is helpful and its connection to a public health outcome, like mental health, helps engage more actors to take action,” Gupta says. “We’re engaged in a national conversation about student mental health right now. Combating period poverty is something we can do to improve student mental health” added Cardoso.
In addition to Rep. Meng’s national bill, several other states and jurisdictions are eyeing legislation that would provide menstrual supplies for free in government buildings, including schools.
California has currently passed proposed legislation Assembly Bill 367, otherwise known as the Menstrual Equity for All Bill, in both the state assembly and senate. If signed into law, it would be the first in the nation to include public higher education in legislation mandating the free provisions of menstrual products.
Ultimately, Gupta is encouraged that her study has informed policy and has the potential to help women and girls.
“The whole goal in doing research, especially when it comes to health inequity, is to not just to document patterns, but to also help translate findings into action,” says Gupta. “While this is one study, I am excited to witness the immediate policy impact to help address inequities in period poverty.”