In an era that’s brought us self-driving cars, AI technology, and the metaverse, it seems thoroughly antiquated that we’re still hiding our tampons up our sleeves en route to our office bathrooms. And that’s not the only out-of-date stance around menstruation we’ve yet to do away with. Month after month, girls, women, and trans menstruators quietly struggle through meetings with cramps. Some stay home from school or work due to discomfort, or a lack of access to feminine hygiene products. Many decline to discuss their periods for fear of stigmatization.
What's more, periods are expensive. If you’ve never given much thought to spending your cashflow on your, uhhh, flow, know this: Countless women are made to go without menstrual care products simply due to their price tags. Period poverty is a very real and pressing issue right here in the United States, affecting Black and marginalized communities at higher rates than the general population. And for Asia and Laila Brown, the women behind small-scale period advocacy non-profit 601 for Period Equity, enough is enough.
The sisters from Vicksburg, Mississippi, launched their grassroots organization in 2021 to raise awareness about period poverty and provide menstrual care packages to those in need. The idea first came about after Asia, now 21, and Laila, 17, became ambassadors for The Pad Project, a nonprofit that aims to end period stigma by installing pad machines, implementing washable pad programs, and hosting menstrual hygiene management workshops with the help of partner organizations across the globe. “Menstrual equity is something that was never talked about in our hometown,” says Asia, a senior majoring in Comparative Women’s Studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. “It’s an issue a lot of people don’t think or care about, because it typically affects people other than cisgender men — plus, people tend to downplay women’s experiences," adds Laila. "And as a young Black woman, it’s important to me to make sure that marginalized voices in the menstrual equity space are being heard.”
While quarantining with her immediate family back home in Mississippi during the pandemic, Asia's recent learnings in the realm of women’s health issues weighed heavily on her mind. So, she decided to take action, right then and there. “Poverty is really pervasive in Mississippi — and at its core, period poverty is really just poverty,” she says. “So I went into Laila’s room and said, ‘Why don’t we start [a nonprofit] ourselves, right here in Vicksburg?’” Laila, of course, was fully on board.
Inspired by their area code, 601 for Period Equity launched with a simple Google form where people could submit requests for period care packages, and within two weeks, the Browns had received roughly 300 requests. “That’s when we knew people really needed this and would use it as a resource,” says Laila.
Now, two years since its founding, 601 embodies a three-fold mission centered on advocacy, education, and mutual aid. Through media interviews and speaking engagements, the sisters continue to call for the abolition of the so-called “menstrual tax” whereby, in 26 states, period products are declared “non-essential” and taxed as luxury items (think: electronics, jewelry, and makeup). Though the luxury sales tax varies from state to state, at 7%, Mississippi’s rate is the highest in the nation.
Fortunately, the Brown sisters are not the only ones fighting to eradicate the menstrual tax. They're also proud to see larger companies taking their mission to heart — like CVS Health, which is making strides to address the inequities of menstrual care across the board. Right now, the corporation is paying the cost of the “menstrual tax” on products in 12 U.S. states that will allow it — while partnering with national organizations that are working to eliminate it altogether — as well as reducing the prices of all CVS Health store brand period products by 25%, and addressing gender-specific cost structures (including the “pink tax,” which is the premium that women tend to pay because their personal care items — like razors and shampoo — cost more than men’s). “It’s so huge that a major brand is taking that step to say, ‘This is a real issue that impacts people — it’s not something that women are making up,’” says Laila. “Lowering the barriers that so many families face to access these products is an action that makes a real, tangible difference.”
Better yet, in late 2022, the Browns received a $20,000 grant from CVS Health to further their mission of uplifting marginalized menstruators. “We’re so grateful that this funding will allow us to purchase more products and get them into the hands of people who are struggling to afford such basic necessities,” says Asia.
In the coming years, the sisters hope to expand their organization to a global level. But for now, while they continue to attend school, they’re focusing their outreach on what they call “forgotten populations,” stationed closer to home. “We recently spent time with incarcerated women at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and we were able to provide menstrual hygiene items that they don’t have access to,” says Asia, who hopes to open her own women’s clinic in Mississippi after attending Emory University’s School of Nursing. “When we said we were from Vicksburg, so many women from our hometown lit up. They were proud that we were there, advocating on their behalf.”
Speaking of local advocacy: Earlier this year, Laila pushed the associate superintendent of her school district to invest in high-quality, free-vend pad and tampon dispensers for all three of the public high schools in her hometown — and her request was granted. “That’s the type of change that I want to create,” she says. “Change that affects the people that I see every day.”
Editor's Note: If you're looking to get involved in the fight against period poverty, click here to donate to 601 for Period Equity.