Marina Yoshimura is a senior at Waseda University and President of PERIOD @ Tokyo, Japan, a chapter of the global PERIOD movement.
Tokyo, Japan—This International Women’s Day, let’s talk about periods.
I walked into a convenience store in Tokyo to find men perusing porn magazines the store had on full display. I walked to the amenities aisle to pick up a packet of pads and carried it to the cashier. When I finished paying, the store clerk pulled out a brown bag from the store rack, put my packet of pads in the bag and taped it before handing it back to me. It was, I assumed, a well-intentioned attempt at hospitality. Still, it was outraging. Why are periods a source of shame in society? On the other side of the store, men were still looking at the cover girls and flipping through pages of women’s bodies. The double-standard wasn’t lost on me. Which is shameful— periods or perverts?
Periods aren’t the problem; the patriarchy is.
In Carefully Smash the Patriarchy, Penelope Green, feature writer for The New York Times, says, “…patriarchy divides just about everything into that which is male and that which is female, and privileges the former over the latter.” This means when women and menstruators—periods aren’t just for women—have periods, society often dismisses their struggles.
Take the tampon tax. People are expected to pay taxes—often a substantial amount—to use period products. In Germany, tampons were considered luxury items instead of necessities until 2019. In Japan, the tampon tax is 10 percent, while taxes for food deliveries and takeouts—orders from Uber Eats, for example—are eight percent, because they apply to the reduced tax rate. In the United States, the tampon tax is prevalent, although some states have banned it. In Tennessee, the tampon tax ban proposal fell through after “A proposal to include feminine hygiene products during Tennessee’s annual sales-tax holiday faced resistance Tuesday from lawmakers concerned about the lack of limit on on such purchases.” The resistance came from male lawmakers.
Even in some Nordic countries, which have some of the world’s most progressive social welfare standards, tampon taxes are some of the highest in the world—over 20%. People who can’t afford period products often resort to using toilet paper, newspapers, plastic bags, and socks. Period poverty is real; yet, several male officials are resisting the necessary reforms female officials propose. The tampon tax can exacerbate poverty.
The social consequences of menstruation are significant today and can even be life-threatening. Some menstruators are “isolated into solitary confinement” or “forbidden to bathe,” according to UN Women. Some are banned from “[c]ooking or touching food,” the organization says. In Nepal, chauppadi, a tradition the country banned in 2005, caused women to stay isolated in huts during their menstruation. But in remote areas, the tradition persists. In 2019, a woman burned to death when she tried to warm herself in the freezing weather inside a hut, for which her brother-in-law was later arrested.
“The menstrual taboo that we talk about today usually refers to the societal fear of talking about periods,” writes Nadya Okamoto in her book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement (47).
The taboos make period pain, which is common, difficult to treat as well. They encourage silence, which lads to a lack of honest conversations about periods based on facts. “The cost of menstrual products may also contribute to the perception that daughters are economically burdensome,” according to the UN Population Fund. “The biggest challenges I face on a daily basis are the ones in which I feel I cannot treat my menstrual cramps as I would any other pain,” says Manari Osaki, Events Coordinator at PERIOD @ Tokyo, Japan.
The social shame of periods prevent them from being treated as a health or medical issue. Shame is the opposite of empowerment. We need to break this toxic cycle of silence, shame and misconceptions.
Change is coming. Some policies have made menstrual products more accessible to people, reducing their financial burden. The Scottish parliament, which in 2019 launched an initiative to get more women involved in politics, reached a milestone when it approved free period products on February 25, 2020, after Monica Lennon MSP of the Scottish Labour Party introduced the bill in April 2019. This means that Scotland became the first country in the world to make pads and tampons free.
But policies alone rarely change cultures. Companies should challenge stigma as well. On June 12, 2019, Unicharm, a leading period products company in Japan, started a campaign called #NoBagForMe to remove the shame of buying period products, encouraging customers to embrace their periods by refusing bag offerings in stores that insinuate period shame. Movements can de-stigmatize periods and encourage discussions about them.
Youth organizations around the world are also fighting period injustice. PERIOD Inc. is an example of a youth nonprofit that has now expanded to a global movement. In 2014, two then-high school students Nadya Okamoto and Vincent Forand started the nonprofit, which tackles period injustice through service, education and advocacy. Today, it has chapters globally. Although each chapter has its own initiatives, many address period poverty through fundraising and donating period products. They also raise awareness of periods to the public through social media and presentations. This movement is effective not despite but because they are youth-run; they mobilize young people around the world to start their own grassroots movements—in high schools and colleges—that understand their local communities and issues.
So this Women’s Day, let’s ask ourselves, What are we doing to empower women around us? The period movement isn’t just about removing the tampon tax; it’s also about raising awareness of periods and empowering people to embrace their bodies. It’s not simply about dismantling the patriarchy; it’s about making people of all genders allies of menstrual rights—and more—without politicizing the issues. It’s about supporting the people around us. We can do this.
Menstrual rights are human rights. Period.