Two women strive for menstrual equality during pandemic

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WESTFIELD / SUMMIT, NJ — During the coronavirus pandemic, multiple community groups have been working to ensure residents have access to such essentials as food, cleaning supplies, toiletries and personal protective equipment. For some reason, though, menstrual pads and tampons have often been left off the list of vital necessities. At this time, when so many need a helping hand, women’s needs seem to have been largely forgotten. As two women who are addressing this issue have said, periods don’t stop in a pandemic.

Diya Khullar, a Summit resident and recent graduate of Northeastern University, and Linzy Rosen, a Westfield resident and third-year student at Colby College, have teamed up to address period poverty and unified their efforts to launch a menstrual-product drive.

“The original catalyst for my journey into menstrual equity was Viet Nguyen of Brown University, who led a student government initiative to supply menstrual products in all restrooms, including men’s restrooms,” Khullar said on Sept. 5. “Then I piloted the same initiative at my college, Northeastern University, beginning 2017. I emailed our Massachusetts state representative, and Christine Barber responded, putting me in touch with Sasha Goodfriend, the president of Mass NOW and co-author of the I AM bill.

“This bill seeks to provide free menstrual products to schoolchildren, incarcerated people and people experiencing homelessness,” she continued. “In advocating for this bill, as well as attending the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research biennial conference, I realized that period poverty and stigma is a prominent issue in the U.S. and resolved to try helping people locally once I graduated from Northwestern and returned to my home state of New Jersey.

“The pandemic becoming exacerbated at this time was a complete coincidence, and the financial strain it put on people only made our cause more urgent. I met Linzy in 2019 through her leadership in organizing a rally in Boston to increase visibility and support for the I AM bill. She happens to be from the same county as I am and was eager to help when I proposed the idea to her,” she concluded.

Rosen agreed.

“Diya spearheaded this project in early May of this summer,” Rosen said on Sept. 4. “She reached out to me because we had worked together to organize the Boston National Period Day Rally back in October 2019. Diya has tackled menstrual inequity by working with Mass NOW, while I was working on this issue at PERIOD@Brandeis, a club I started at my previous college. We also both happened to be from New Jersey, so this collaboration was perfect.”

Rosen also spoke about the stigma that often accompanies menstruation.

“I really think this all comes down to the stigma around menstruation,” Rosen said. “The societal discomfort surrounding menstruation leads to its erasure in media, health care settings and our institutions at large. This has made it very difficult to legitimize menstrual-product needs as something worth caring about and acting upon during this pandemic.”

Khullar agreed with Rosen.

“I think the taboo around menstruation contributes to a lot of this,” Khullar said. “Periods are often hush-hush or an embarrassing topic and therefore not at the forefront of many discussions on equity. On top of this, menstruators who are transgender and nonbinary can have their needs further neglected due to the gendered discussion around periods.”

In May, Khullar and Rosen launched the “Menstrual Products for Jersey” initiative on Facebook. They contacted a number of organizations, and Khullar rallied her network to support the effort.

“This project is focused on collecting physical donations of disposable menstrual products and monetary contributions to purchase period products for homeless shelters and a correctional facility,” Rosen said. “We have utilized Facebook groups, clubs and social networks, as well as local media, to spread awareness of our project and garner support. We also use social media to spread information about menstrual justice and bolster this larger movement.”

According to Khullar, the initiative serves a multitude of organizations.

“Menstrual Products for New Jersey serves Summit GRACE, Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, Family Promise Union County and Essex County Correctional Facility,” Khullar said. “We have no external funding for promotion and operation but are extremely fortunate to have access to internet, transport and free time to keep the initiative running. I am a recent college graduate with my bachelor’s degree in health sciences and Linzy is a third-year undergraduate student at Colby College. We also recently switched to Femi Secrets, a black-woman–owned brand of menstrual products that are 100-percent cotton and chemical free. Thanks to our donors, we have been able to successfully cover the increased cost of higher-quality products and continue collecting and distributing the menstrual products to people experiencing homelessness or incarceration.”

The two are now looking for donations for their menstrual-product drive.

“We are looking for individually wrapped pads and pantyliners,” Khullar said. “We accept tampons, but pads are preferred. Essex County Correctional Facility accepts unopened boxes of pads only. We also accept financial donations and allocate them toward bulk purchases of pads.”

According to Khullar and Rosen, these products are often overlooked.

“I believe that a majority of U.S. legislators being male nonmenstruators causes a deficit in policy surrounding menstruation,” Khullar said. “Take the tampon tax, for instance. As I mentioned earlier, there are also cultural and gendered taboos around periods, making their discussion an often-silenced topic.”

“Tampon tax” is the term used to describe the sales tax being applied to feminine hygiene products, such as menstrual pads and tampons.

“Menstrual products are so overlooked because they simply aren’t treated like the necessary health care items we know they are,” Rosen said. “Presently, a majority of U.S. states tax tampons and pads, while a variety of items, ranging from donuts to shampoo, are exempt from the sales tax in those very states. Until menstrual inequity is acknowledged as a legitimate issue and recognized as a consequence of our biased legislation, this cycle of inequity will only continue. Activism and grassroots engagement will help to disrupt this cycle of oppression and exclusion from our political system.”

The two young women have collected products in both Westfield and Summit.

“Since May, we have collected and distributed over 20,000 menstrual products to people in Union and Essex counties,” Khullar said. “More importantly, we have been able to successfully meet the need of clients at Family Promise and Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless until the beginning of September. It is difficult to market the cause to different audiences due to having no marketing spend and minimal experience, but we are doing our best given the circumstances. Being that we are an informal initiative and rely entirely on donations from the community, we sincerely appreciate every news article and social media post spreading the word about our cause.”

“I am proud of this initiative and our ability to engage so many community members who were previously unfamiliar with the issue of menstrual inequity or simply did not have the platform to act on this cause,” Rosen said. “We have been very successful in garnering product donations through local curbside pickups, as well as numerous small dollar contributions from students, activists and community members through checks and Venmo.

“Later this month,” Rosen added, “we will be distributing over 2,000 menstrual products to the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, GRACE Food Pantry, the Essex County Correctional Facility and Family Promise.”

The two women remain steadfast in their efforts.

“I am grateful that I am able to serve my own community,” Khullar said. “I feel that many of us have the misconception that period poverty does not exist in more affluent areas, but the reality is this issue is everywhere. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has donated so far, and I never had a numerical goal in mind, so passing 20,000 products was mind-blowing to me.

“From a product-access standpoint, we are certainly helping provide free menstrual products to people who may not have had access to them otherwise,” she continued. “In terms of stigma, we post articles to our Facebook page to educate our followers, but unfortunately, these do not receive as much traction yet. We look forward to expanding our voices and the voices of marginalized menstruators as best as we can.”

While their current work has been successful, Rosen acknowledged the need for more long-term solutions and plans for future emergencies.

“I strongly believe that our focus on supporting the communities around us makes this work incredibly impactful,” Rosen said. “This is especially true for the correctional facility we have partnered with. While I believe this project has served countless menstruators in need, this is not the only way we can support menstruators in need. We need to be pushing for long-term solutions that are fueled by equitable policies and resource distribution, rather than the generosity of our community members.

“For me, this initiative has highlighted the fact that we must address needs in an emergency situation, such as this pandemic, but we also must reform the structures in place that created such inequality to begin with,” she concluded.

Donations can be sent to @MenstrualProductsForNJ on Venmo or by emailing to discuss check and product donations.

Photos Courtesy of Diya Khullar and Linzy Rosen