Sister Supply: Solving Period Poverty

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by Eli Cloud

Sister Supply is a grassroots non-profit organization that is helping to fight Period Poverty. Our Mission is threefold:

  • Supply the need for menstrual products to those who lack financial access to these monthly necessities;
  • Destigmatize menstruation;
  • Provide education about and access to sustainable products (menstrual cups and washable pads)

Sister Supply distributes products to existing organizations and institutions that serve both homeless and impoverished populations including shelters, community service organizations and outreach programs, civic organizations, and schools.

Interestingly, my husband Eric opened my eyes to this need. We were having lunch several years ago when he told me that a homeless woman had slipped into the lobby at his workplace the previous night (of single digit temps) and fell asleep on a couch in the lobby. When discovered by the security guard, the woman, and the couch she was lying on, were covered in menstrual blood.

The guard told the woman she should leave before the police were called so she wouldn’t get in trouble for criminal trespassing. Cold and tired, the woman waited. Utterly defeated and with no way to clean herself up, going to jail, to her, was a better option than walking away covered in blood. With tears in her eyes she waitedfor the police to come. My heart broke when I heard this woman’s story. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman and wondering — what do homeless women do during their period?

After hearing this story, I wanted to be a part of the solution. But after talking to community activists, shelters, and community outreach organizations in Memphis, an unsettling truth was revealedto me: many women and adolescent girls living in Memphis do not have access to these female-specific essentials, forcing them to improvise or go without. Imagine what that means to IMPROVISE.

Rather than become overwhelmed by the problem of homelessness and poverty, together with my co-founder, Nikii Richey, Sister Supplywas created with a specific mission — to provide access to menstrual products for thosein need. Although we began Sister Supply with the intention of serving homeless women, we soon realized that there was an even greater need among school-aged menstruators.This is not just a third-world problem. Memphians living in poverty go without effective menstrual products because they can’t afford them. They miss work; they miss school. Sister Supply is working to change that.

Destigmatization of menstruation is a natural outcropping of supplying the need and talking about period poverty. We are challenging social norms by openly discussing menstruation. An open dialog about period poverty and the effect it hason the entire communityis essential to solving this problem. The reason this need was able to remain hidden for as long as it did is because no one wanted to talk about it. Not the women/girls who suffered (and IMPROVISED) in silence, and certainly not the men who set the budgets and were able to keep this off their radar altogether.

There is nothing shameful about menstruation. We deliberately use the phrase “menstrual products,” versus hygiene or sanitary products, because they are used for the collection of menstrual blood, not to clean. Sister Supply doesn’t sanitize the language we use to talk about menstrual products. That is part of stigmatization.

By providing education about sustainable menstrual products as a more permanent solution to menstruatorsfacing period poverty, wegive them a 10-year solution rather than just a monthly reprieve. Ideally, we want to provide access to sustainable menstrual products to all our beneficiaries, but we have more work to do on destigmatization and education so that women and girls will make the switch from disposables. We are ina position to make the initial investment to provide costly, yet sustainable products, to women who consistently lack access.

Originally, I viewed the work we do at Sister Supply as a humanitarian issue (and I still do). However, I have come to understand how the condition of period poverty impacts our community. If Memphis wants to attract corporations with higher paying wages,we must have a talented and educated workforce. When girls miss class going to the office to get pads, or worse, skip school altogether, they are not receiving the full benefit of their education. They are missing instruction time that boys do not. The fact that a girl has a period should not diminish her time in the classroom. Many girls will drop out becausethey fall behind. Others will not score high enough on college entrance exams to continue their education.

When women and girls cannot find or keep a job earning a livable wage,they receive government assistance such as subsidized housing, health insurance, and food/EBT cards (incidentally, you cannot buy menstrual products with EBT cards). These programs cost far more than it would cost to provide pads and tampons in all schools and government- owned buildings. It makes more fiscal sense to provide access to menstruators early on — while they are in school — to eliminate the barrier to education created by period poverty.

It is time for policymakers and the entire community to realize that eradicating period poverty is in everyone’s best interest. The homeless woman who inspired the creation of Sister Supply was eventually taken to Regional One Health — a level one trauma hospital — for her period. If you compare the costs associated with that visit to the costs associated with providing access to menstrual products, it is a no-brainer.

Sister Supply was founded with the intention of solving a problem. This is a solvable problem.

For less than $1, Sister Supply can take of a menstruator’s needs for one month. To donate or for information on product drives and opportunities for corporate donations from manufacturers visit sistersupply.org.