When Dana Marlowe founded I Support The Girls (ISTG) in July of 2015, she wanted to provide bras and menstrual products to individuals in need, and expected to donate these products to homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters. It became clear that these products were needed by a much broader set of organizations. The demand proved that not only are these supplies essential, but there is a discrepancy between access to these products and the people who need them most. Five years later, ISTG supplies period products and bras to food pantries, refugee agencies, native american reservations, LGBTQ organizations, prisons and reentry programs, low income public schools – and that is just a fraction. Through a global network of affiliates, I Support The Girls has donated well over 8.6 million products to over 1,800 vetted social service organizations.
ISTG also provides support for disaster relief, ensuring that access to menstrual products is not compromised, responding to regions affected by hurricanes, tornados, or wildfires. Now, amidst a global pandemic, ISTG is working to address an unprecedented form of disaster. Limited access to essential healthcare products at this time includes menstrual products, a phenomenon felt on a global level, and by all sorts of communities. We spoke with Dana about how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing issues of access equity to light.
In a recent conversation with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf we spoke about the role affordability plays in access to menstrual products. Before we explore the ways in which the current crisis is calling attention to this matter, why isn’t it a given that every person with a period has access to menstrual products in our country?
Access to menstrual hygiene products is a real issue.In some states it is being looked at as such, or legislation has passed to be able to provide these necessities. In other states it’s not, and this makes it that much more of a barrier to access supplies. Period poverty and limited access to menstrual products happens to millions of people all over the globe, everyday.
There’s also an element of the menstrual taboo, that LOLA does a lot of work to break, as do many organizations and activists. If you’re not talking about a topic comfortably, it’s making gaining access that much harder. It’s not being discussed in the legislature, and it’s not being discussed by key stakeholders.
Now, how has this crisis in particular made access inequality clear? What might be something you expected to see, versus what has been an unexpected reality?
When it comes to the ways in which ISTG approaches disaster relief efforts, our team can normally anticipate needs based on various kinds of natural disasters. We can anticipate the needs of specific cities, and we know what resources we have on the ground and what vetted services we have in that area. That’s our strategy and planning in normal times — not that any disaster is welcome or normal, but we do know roughly the season and where these disasters can hit.
What makes coronavirus different is that it’s happening everywhere, all at the same time, and with very little planning. There are communities and services where we anticipate the need for support regardless of disaster. What’s different about this, is that not only do those same social services need support and products, but people who are being furloughed and laid off are now also reaching out.
Finally, there is another population who can afford the products and normally have access to them, but cannot find the products right now because people have been hoarding them. These people typically wouldn’t fall into the network of organizations that we support, but they do right now.
If I were to have asked you before coronavirus about the populations who need access to period products most, I’m sure you would have an answer from your years of work in access equality. Has that answer changed at all since coronavirus?
We definitely have a lot more requests from domestic violence and family shelters across the country since the stay-at-home order was set in place. But this crisis also surfaces how fragile people’s personal economics are. There are so many people living paycheck to paycheck, who may be able to afford healthcare products, but with little space for instability. Now, we’re going to see a spike in individual needs. For instance, food banks are going to see far more people, and in particular people who previously did not need this service, but now need immediate resources and cannot wait to be approved for food stamps.
Another community that now needs support is our frontline healthcare workers. These are people who can afford period products, but they do not have the time to be looking in stores for them. Usually hospitals supply these products for their staff, but we have started seeing even large hospitals request them.
How has the pandemic and social distancing changed the way ISTG is organizing and meeting people’s needs?
During previous times of disaster, it was never a problem to ramp up our volunteers for shipping, packing, and sorting. The big difference with coronavirus is that we cannot maximize our efficiency as in the past die to social distancing. We might normally have 30 people packing for four hours, but now we can only have one volunteer or one family unit at a time in the warehouse.
What actions can those interested in access equality take right now?
The first thing that we need most urgently is for people to contribute financially. Product and labor is always donated, but the money you donate assists with shipping. For five dollars you can help a person with a period for a month, and for fifty dollars you can assist a small domestic violence shelter in supplying everyone with products.
Number two is people can share information about this issue on their social channels and raise awareness in their communities. It helps us break menstrual taboos, and that’s what ISTG and LOLA are all about from an activism standpoint.
At time of publication LOLA is proud to have donated 6 million products total and 1 million products in the last month to ISTG. To get involved visit https://isupportthegirls.org/