Last month, after the UK's government declined to repeal a five percent tax on menstrual health products, which are classified as "luxury products," one feminist activist responded with blood. A young woman named Charlie Edge organized a protest outside Parliament, writing on Facebook: "Today, I am forgoing tampons and pads outside the houses of parliament to show how 'luxury' tampons really are." She rallied two other women and bled in streets through her white pants to underscore what it looks like when tampons and pads are out of reach.
Across the pond, 40 states in the US tax menstrual hygiene products. While tampons and pads are not subject to an additional tax, they're not considered necessities, like groceries, which are tax-free in the majority of states. Tampons and pads can't be purchased with SNAP (food stamps), either. So for the women who can't afford tampons, free bleeding isn't so much an inspired act of protest, but an expected burden every month.
Faced with a lack of governmental response to this problem, independent organizations have been cropping up in recent years to provide pads and tampons to homeless and in-need women. In London there's Tampon Tuesday, and in the US, non-profits like Distributing Dignity and The Period Project rally donations for shelters.
Chelsea VonChaz's California-based initiative Happy Period (no relation to the Procter and Gamble campaign) takes a more hands-on approach. The 27-year-old and up to 20 other volunteers walk Los Angeles's Skid Row and hand out kits of tampons and pads. What started out of a personal desire to help the women she regularly saw on the streets of LA in blood-stained clothes has grown into a movement. VonChaz now has volunteers under the Happy Period banner distributing menstrual care products on the streets of New Jersey, Florida, and New York.
"One day, I was driving through Hollywood, off of Third and La Brea," VonChaz says. "While I was stopped at a light, I saw this black woman whose clothes were completely tainted. I watched her cross the street and then stand behind a building. She squatted down and then that's when I realized—she was on her period. The image of her never left me."
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That's when VonChaz started inquiring at shelters: What's being done for homeless women when they have their periods? The first shelter she called, the Downtown Women's Center, inadvertently sparked the idea for Happy Period. "I called up the shelter, and the woman I spoke to on the phone basically told me that they don't have a budget for tampons or pads, and they're the least donated items," VonChaz says. "She told me that the shelter is more likely to get donations of razor blades for the men to shave, and shaving cream, and deodorant, and toothbrushes, and toothpaste." Worst-case scenario, VonChaz recalls the shelter telling her, volunteers, when asked, will give out their personal tampons or pads if they happen to have them in their purses. (The Downtown Women's Center did not immediately respond to Broadly's request for comment.)
"I was shocked when she said that, but I'm happy she gave me that answer because it made me do something about it," VonChaz says.
Namely, distribute Happy Period's bright yellow bags of supplies once a month, directly to the women who need them most. VonChaz and her Happy Period volunteers caravan to Skid Row or behind the Union Rescue Mission, where women are often gathered outside. After a hand-off and a conversation, VonChaz says she'll often hear women express the rarity of the situation. "I've heard women say so many times that no one ever gives them this stuff." It's more likely, VonChaz has found, that homeless women will find donated clothing or baby diapers to turn into a pad.
The aspect of street distribution is key to VonChaz's mission. "There are a lot of trans men who still have their periods, and they're often discriminated against when they try to access shelters, so we just go directly to them," she says. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 29 percent of transgender people seeking shelter were turned away that year. Of those who were allowed into shelters, 55 percent were harassed, 25 percent were physically assaulted, and 22 percent were sexually assaulted.
But anyone who wants to help provide women with hygiene products is free to join the Happy Period movement, no membership required. "I just encourage everybody to do their own research, contact shelters, and ask, 'How can we help? What can we do?'" VonChaz says. "Just call and say, 'This is what we do. What's the best way to provide this for you and the people that live here?'"