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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Why Lena Vann is tackling period poverty and menstrual health stigma — in two states

Buying a box of tampons for $12 is one thing, but walking a half mile to Walgreens just to find them is another – this is the reality for a lot of students at North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, and other HBCUs across the country.

When people face challenges accessing or affording menstruation products, it’s called period poverty. When Lena Vann experienced this as a student at North Carolina A&T, she created the Black Period Project to raise awareness and offer resources to Black menstruators.

“Being a Black woman and supporting the Black community is personal to me. The work that Black Period Project does is a lived experience for me and many of the people that look like me,” Vann told Reckon.

With 24% of Latina and 19% of Black women experiencing period poverty in 2022, according to the BMC Women’s Health study, the racial disparities for menstrual equity are clear when compared to the 11% of white women facing period poverty.

Because of groups like the Black Period Project, menstruators across HBCUs – North Carolina A&T and Spelman College are able to make managing periods with the appropriate resources possible.

Periods are normal

When Vann founded the Black Period Project four years ago, as Miss Freshman at North Carolina A&T she set out to connect college students to period products and bust up menstrual health stigma.

Now at 23, she continues to normalize the conversation around periods with her grassroots non-profit while also starting her career at Microsoft.

“Periods are not gross; they’re not weird. They’re just a natural process that happens for those who possess uteruses,” Vann said.

Menstrual health stigma and period taboos persist among African Americans, largely because of trauma from chattel slavery and a common distrust of medical care from gynecologists.

HBCUs are a reflection of the Black community, and students with menstruating bodies inherit, take on and at times unknowingly perpetuate the same stigmas and taboos as previous generations when it comes to periods. Even seemingly innocuous things like hiding a tampon on the way to the bathroom help perpetuate these stigmas.

“Our (cis-gendered Black women) identity has been influenced so much by internalized racism that we associate our self-esteem with the cleanliness of our physical appearance,” Vann told Reckon.

“And society doesn’t see period blood as clean.”

While stigma still exists, trending TikTok videos of cis-gender men supporting their menstruating partners by purchasing their period products are shifting the narrative that periods are something that menstruating people have to experience alone or even hide.

The Black Period Project has made efforts to engage men in its mission by forming a Black men’s coalition aimed at educating men on menstruation and advocating for period products.

“There are a lot of folks’ stories that are rooted in trauma and are rooted in the lack of education that has been passed down generationally,” Zsanai Epps, director of Positive Period for the Black Women’s Health Imperative told the Defender.

Tampons, pads and menstrual cups for everyone

Navigating period poverty can take various forms, such as borrowing products, using toilet paper or fabric, leaving in menstrual products longer than recommended, going without menstrual pain medication or using nothing at all.

The Black Period Project first sought to combat period poverty by hand sewing 30 reusable menstrual hygiene pads for unhoused menstruators across Greensboro. Now the organization serves Vann’s alma mater, Spelman and surrounding Black communities.

“I knew how inconvenient it was for me to get menstrual hygiene products while living on campus, so I felt a sense of responsibility to pour back into the community that raised me,” Vann said.

The average (cis-gender) woman spends around $20 on feminine hygiene products per cycle, according to the National Organization for Women, a burdensome cost for many people like college students and unhoused people. That’s why Vann and a team of more than 50 Black Period Project volunteers work to provide free menstrual hygiene kits.

Spread out between Greensboro and Atlanta, the Black Period Project serves both HBCU campuses, as well as surrounding Black communities by including two pads, two tampons, two panty liners and two hygiene wipes in each menstrual hygiene kit they give out.

In addition to the hygiene kit program, the Black Period Project now has its first HBCU period closet on the campus of Spelman. Here, students can access anything from period panties to diva cups.

“The more we as a community, specifically as a Black community, normalize the discussion around periods, the sooner we can erase the stigma and raise awareness for period poverty,” Vann said.

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