On August 23, 2019, 19 states filed suit against the Trump administration after they chose to allow the indefinite detention of migrants, alleging rampant abuse in the migrant detention center system that the Trump administration flooded by engaging in family separation policies that still happen today. In the lawsuit, children said they were held in rooms that were too small for them to sit or lay down, they were over crowded, and they were woken nightly by “roll calls.” Some said they had to fight for food that guards threw on the floor. Another, equally disturbing detail emerged: Migrant teens revealed that, when menstruating, they were only allowed one pad or one tampon a day.
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For the unaware, tampons and pads are medically required to be changed every four to six hours. Obviously, one tampon a day does not meet that medical requirement. After the migrant teens bled through that, they had to take it out or extend their usage of the period product at risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome, a condition that can kill people. People who get toxic shock can have fever, low blood pressure, and diarrhea, break out in a rash, get muscle aches, experience confusion, have seizures, and can die. A risk factor for developing TSS is having the flu. The administration recently announced it wouldn’t be giving people in detention flu vaccines.
To save themselves from this, the girls were forced to bleed through their clothes or use toilet paper, the latter of which is also in short supply at detention centers. When the girls bled through their pants, the lawsuit says guards did not offer them a chance to shower or change their clothes.
The Trump administration has continually tried to challenge minimum standards of care and put children’s lives in danger. In this way, the one-tampon pad a day rule is par for the course. But in this instance it’s not a uniquely Trumpian problem. In fact, lack of access to tampons and pads is a human rights concern around the world — and a hotly debated issue in the prisons and public schools of the United States.
Tampon access around the world can mean the difference between finishing school and dropping out at 12. In many countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, girls who have their periods miss school every single month. Refugee women fleeing violence in war-torn countries like Syria struggle monthly when they get their periods, often do not even have toilet paper or tissues to keep sanitary during their monthly period and cannot often ask for tampons or pads because they do not speak the language of people around them. More than 1.25 billion people in the world do not have access to a toilet when they have their periods, per Reuters. In some cultures, women are forced to stay in huts or be separated from the general population when they have their period, and some die as a result.
One study found that in refugee camps in Syria or Lebanon, over half of the girls did not even have underwear to wear at all, and far more had no access to sanitary products. Over half of those girls also developed urinary tract infections due to lack of sanitary conditions or products. UTIs, if untreated, which many of these likely are, can lead to permanent kidney damage.
Tampons and pads are a medical necessity for half the world’s population. This is why The Human Rights Watch agrees that access to menstrual products is a human right. Without them children and parents are put at risk of death. What more do you need for something to be protected as a right?
Without tampons and pads, girls struggle to have the same access to education, health services, or other normal basic things that boys can generally access with ease in the best case. The United Nations Children’s Fund fights period stigmatization and lack of access across the world by helping install private toilets or give girls access to reusable sanitary napkins. It also reports what some people clearly don’t realize: over a lifetime, the average girl menstruates for a full seven years of their life.
UNICEF also reports that at least 2.3 billion people don’t have access to sanitary products, not to mention the 1.25 billion people who do not even have access to a toilet when they have their period. In Sub-Saharan Africa, many girls outright drop out of school when they get their period, or miss about twenty percent of the school year due to the totally normal medical condition of being a pubescent girl. Globally, 113 million girls are at risk of dropping out of school due to the fact that they do not have access to a toilet, running water, soap, or products at school.
There has been progress. For the first time ever, last year The Justice Department directed federal prisons to give inmates who have periods free access to menstrual products. Previously, inmates either had to pay for the products — meaning many women in prison went without or used toilet paper or extended the use of their tampons and pads, putting them at risk of TSS — or ask prison guards for the menstrual products, putting inmates in the uncomfortable position of asking those who have power over them for a basic health product. The First Step Act, a federal prison reform policy, also requires that incarcerated people have access to menstrual products.
States across the country are considering legislation to provide students with free and open access to menstrual products in public schools, and districts that provided tampons noted a significant increase in school attendance among teen girls.
Periods — and being able to manage them with dignity, without it getting in the way of education or a life — are a human rights issue. In the worst case scenario — like in the detention centers on the American border or in migrant camps in Lebanon — sanitary products protect girls from disease or death. In the best case, they help girls live lives of dignity and help them be able to engage in public life, another basic human right. Denying teen girls an appropriate amount of sanitary pads or tampons (at least four tampons a day) will make them sick, will diminish their dignity, and will harm them overall. It is, frankly, inhumane.
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