Not Everyone in Philly Has Access to Pads and Tampons. That’s a Problem.
No More Secrets, a Mount Airy-based nonprofit, is doing the work to combat Philadelphia's period poverty.
I realize I’m getting my period when I go to the bathroom with cramps and find that quite suddenly, I’m bleeding heavily. I grab two Midol, a tampon that I’ll have to change soon, and, depending on the pain level, a heating pad, and get on with my day. Some days, the pain is debilitating, and my body feels weak and woozy. Some days, I can tolerate it well. Regardless, I never have to worry about blood leaking everywhere. I can afford the tampons I prefer, the size that works for me, and pads for extra lining when I need it.
For much of Philadelphia, the reality is different.
Women all over Philadelphia wake up with their periods — their uteruses contracting, often painfully, to help expel their lining — and no supplies to help them manage the pain or the blood flow. They’ll miss work or school, or try to manage the bleeding in other ways, like by using kitchen towels or old rags. They’ll ruin clothes and underwear because of this. They’ll ration pads and tampons to get through. And they’ll do it again next month.
This is period poverty: the inability to afford products for dealing with menstruation. It’s an issue most often associated with developing countries (a UPenn sophomore won an Oscar last year for her work depicting the issue in New Delhi), but it’s actually common throughout the United States.
One local organization is trying to change that reality here in Philly. No More Secrets, a sexuality awareness and counseling organization, was founded in 2012 by Mount Airy-based sexual health counselor Lynette Medley, 51, who delivers daily care packages with her daughter, Nya McGlone, 28.
Medley’s nonprofit delivers almost 200 three-month supplies of menstrual products in the Greater Philadelphia area each week, undaunted by thunderstorms, 95 degree weather and COVID-19. A normal day for the No More Secrets crew means upwards of 50 deliveries of menstrual products in the city and suburbs.
And what they’re doing is sorely needed. A 2019 study of American cities found that two-thirds of low-income women didn’t have the resources to buy menstrual products at some point within the past year. In Philadelphia, almost a quarter of our citizens live in poverty, with Black Philadelphians being about “twice as likely to live in poverty” as white Philadelphians. And, for some reason, period products — which are a human necessity for health, sanitation, and attending work or school — aren’t covered by Medicaid or SNAP. They’re also not uniformly available in our public schools. In addition to the years of work by No More Secrets, newer organizations like the teenage-run Menstrual Equity Project have been seeking to fill the gaps in Philly schools recently, but this problem mostly continues, as it has for years, without a government solution in sight.
In July, No More Secrets launched its latest social action campaign, #BlackGirlsBleed, to help raise awareness of and end period poverty, address systemic racism in the menstrual health space, and decrease stigma about menstruation in Black communities.
I chatted with No More Secrets founder Lynette Medley to find out more about #BlackGirlsBleed and period poverty in Philadelphia — and what we can do about it.
Philadelphia magazine: How did you decide to launch your latest social media campaign?
Medley: With #BlackGirlsBleed, we are really intentional about entering a space that is not really welcoming to Black bodies and Black organizations. We are really trying to push the envelope and get donations that are actually going to do good. We are trying to ask people to be inclusive of our efforts. It’s funny, because we are small — very small — and we have been doing a lot, because it is our passion.
How did you first become aware of the extent of period poverty in Philadelphia?
I’m a therapist and sexual awareness counselor. I got into this space because of a situation with a client who was referred to me for acting out sexually. This 13-year-old young lady was sent to me for help.
I asked her, “What is going on that you are acting this way?” She said, “It’s just that I will do whatever I can to get a pad or tampon for me and my siblings!” My mouth dropped. I was shocked.
I said, “What are you talking about?!” She said she would do whatever she could — everything from stealing to selling her body. I said, “You are kidding me!”
I said we could fix it. We could call somebody. I told her, “I’m sure there are resources out there — let me call these people.” She told me, “There are no resources.”
Of course, I said we could fix it. We could call somebody. I told her, “I’m sure there are resources out there — let me call these people.” She told me, “There are no resources.” I said, “Well, let’s call together.”
We start calling. I start calling my friends and the city and the health department and the schools. They said they could give her one pad or tampon, but not multi-day supplies. I told her, “Don’t worry, I am sure there is a bank somewhere.” There was no bank. There were no resources. I said “Well, doesn’t public assistance cover it?” She said no. I started calling the government, the state, and to my surprise, nothing covered it. I was shocked. And that is how I got into this space.
So there were no government resources, and you had to take matters into your own hands?
Yes. I started collecting and distributing menstrual product donations immediately. I started with saying we were gathering “toiletries” for teens to raise money. I was aware that there is a stigma, and I didn’t want to ask directly for funds for tampons. I didn’t know how the community was going to donate, you understand? I wanted to keep it soft so it wouldn’t shock them.
We started small, giving out small care packages, and worked our way up to having a menstrual supplies bank that we manage. Everything is still organic. We still have don’t have a corporate sponsor; we don’t have brands that are funding us. Everything has been from donations and marketing what we do ourselves. When we created the menstrual supplies bank, the people that need these supplies told me that they don’t have money to travel to even pick up these supplies — they need them delivered. That’s how we started the delivery service.
There is a stigma, and I didn’t want to ask directly for funds for tampons. I didn’t know how the community was going to donate, you understand? I wanted to keep it soft so it wouldn’t shock them.”
That is fascinating. I think many people don’t understand that this problem isn’t only happening in developing countries — it’s a Philadelphia issue.
That’s very true. I get frustrated sometimes, but at the end of the day, I think there is really a lack of education and awareness about it. I feel like we aren’t talking about it enough. I don’t think women talk about it enough in general. I started this #BlackGirlsBleed campaign because I really think there is a deficit in communities of color. The purpose was to amplify the voices of Black women, and also to reach out to different brands and suppliers and say, “I see your pages, but I don’t see people that look like us talking about our experiences.” I really just want to decrease the stigma in the communities of color specifically.
For example, not everybody dealing with this is living in total poverty. Many women who ask for donations are hourly wage earners struggling to meet their families’ needs. Usually when people find me to get products, I find out that their attitudes towards their periods are generational. They’ll say, “My mom did it, and my grandmother did it. We all stayed home, couldn’t go to school, and we just used this or that.” People are still using pieces of rag and pieces of comforter and socks and thinking that it’s okay. I have had parents and they work, and they are just trying to buy food, and they are trying to pay for utilities, and they and their children use paper towels because there isn’t another option for them. It’s so much deeper than people imagine, because we really aren’t talking about it. People don’t have a space to talk about it.
What is period poverty, by your definition?
Menstrual equity and period poverty are two different things. A lot of large organizations say they address period poverty. If you are giving someone a lunch bag with three tampons and two pads, that is not period poverty; that is menstrual equity. It’s, “I am giving you this for a moment until you can get other things.”
Period poverty is, “I don’t have any pads; I can’t get access to pads or tampons; me and my family need monthly supplies.” Period poverty is when you are rationing pads between your sisters every month. That is a whole different conversation. But all these organizations are saying period poverty. So you give me two tampons in the little brown bag , and they are talking about solving period poverty! That is for what, one day? A half-day of my cycle?
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What can change at a policy level?
In the majority of the United States, these items are still taxed. I don’t really get into that conversation about the Pink Tax, because the populations we serve … whether it’s taxed or non-taxed, they still can’t pay for it. A dollar or two is not going make a difference for them. These people have stood in lines all summer in the heat trying to get food. Some people would call me and say they need period supplies so they can go get food, because they are bleeding and they don’t have toilet paper or paper towels. They can’t go get supplies because they are bleeding.
I have had meetings with city officials and with the Department of Human Services and the Department of Public Health. I have gotten rebuttals like, “This is not an issue in the community. How can you prove it? Where is the research?” There does need to be more research so we have the evidence to show. I think this needs to be on the risk assessment for the Department of Human Services as risky behaviors, like housing insecurity and food insecurity.
Tell me more about the #BlackGirlsBleed Campaign this past month.
#BlackGirlsBleed is a movement that we started in July of 2020 addressing the systemic racism in the practices of the menstrual space. The menstrual space is really a white space. There are not many people of color in these commercials and at these companies. We realized because of that, menstrual brands and menstrual movements have not historically uplifted Black communities or Black organizations. They don’t like to give us resources even though we are on the ground doing the work. I want to highlight the disparities. I want to highlight that Black girls bleed and share their stories. We realized that women in our communities don’t see people like them talking about their menstrual cycles, talking about their periods. It’s not just menstrual equity — it’s self-esteem-building, and changing the conversation and helping to empower young women to love themselves.
Their experiences are different than they might see in ads. I’ll ask girls, “What do you see in the commercials?” They talk about people who are surfing and swimming and high-diving, but they say, “That is not my experience.”
We need to get to reality and be able to get to talk about these issues and not feel shame. It is really just a way of highlighting their voices and amplifying how they feel in our community. We want to get rid of the generational stigma within communities of color. I want women to start seeing more people talking about it. Women in our communities often suffer in silence.
Not everybody dealing with this is living in poverty. Many women who ask for donations are hourly wage earners struggling to meet their families’ needs.
Do you partner with schools or other local organizations?
We do all the deliveries. We delivered to the School District of Philadelphia when it was open. When we delivered to them, they were called RED boxes — resources for education and distribution. We would give a huge bin filled with pads, tampons, wipes, whatever the school requested. The school system only supplies feminine products to a very small number of our hundreds of schools. And, they only distributed size-one pads. Nurses who got these supplies told us, “We need heavier; we need thicker; we need this size; we need variety.”
That’s true. A thin size-one pad would be useless for me and many women I know.
Yes. It’s not like anyone is asking for a certain brand. I am trying to fit the needs of the people that I am serving. If you are giving size-one pads to a child in poverty who already has an irregular or heavy period, and they are having clots and they are in class, they can’t use it. They will tell me, “I am still not going to go to school, because I will be there bleeding over this size-one pad on the one uniform I have, and my mom doesn’t have regular running water, so I don’t know when it will be washed.”
I have women who have been in the EARN program. They tell me, “I get fired every time because I don’t have pads. I only have one outfit to wear to work, and two pairs of underwear, and the boss will ask, ‘Why do you keep going to the bathroom?’ It’s because I have one dollar-store pad and I leak through it every five minutes.” These are conversations we just don’t have. People are really suffering, and it is actually keeping some people in poverty.
I don’t feel as though it is a handout, because I feel that it’s a disgrace and discriminatory in nature to not address menstrual rights in our communities. I feel it is a human rights issue. I’m just giving them what they need to live their lives.”
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Is there any ever hesitation or shame from people about receiving these boxes of pads and tampons from you?
We used to be like thieves in the night and go out to deliver at night, in the dark. Then one day, one of the recipients in our community, Amirra Jenkins, asked me, “Why are you not thinking business? Why are you not posting this on IG so people know what you are doing?” We took a picture, and soon we started seeing all these girls posting it on social media. So now, people all want to take a picture with us. They want to change this perception.
It was so surprising to me, but the girls feel proud that this is a movement. It’s a movement for these girls and women to say, ‘This makes no sense that this happening,’ and to take a stand. I don’t feel as though it is a handout at all, because it is a disgrace and discriminatory in nature to not address menstrual rights in our communities. I feel it is a human rights issue. I’m just giving them what they need to live their lives.