Ashley Novoa didn't intend to become a period-poverty activist. She only stumbled upon the issue after watching a video online about period poverty in the homeless community. However, once she started the work, she never stopped.Six years ago, she organized a drive among her friends and family to collect period-health supplies to donate to a local shelter — but soon realized this one-time initiative was to become her full-time mission. That's when she founded the Chicago Period Project, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering people in need to experience their period with dignity.
Novoa and CPP have since donated more than 750,000-period products to people in need. "If we do the work to break [down] stigmas and normalize menstruation, it will be easier to bridge those gaps to make sure everyone has adequate access to menstrual supplies," she said.
This issue is a reality for millions of women in the US. Just last year, one in five (that is 21 percent!) women had to ask to borrow a period product due to lack of income, according to a 2021 study from U by Kotex.
Even before starting CPP, Novoa experienced firsthand the stigmas around menstruation that can run rampant in Latinx communities. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said, there was little to no information given to her about periods. "Growing up, I found my experience was quite similar to a lot of my Latinx friends," Novoa said. "Our parents didn't tell us about periods, or anything about reproductive health for that matter. When I got my period at 12, I literally thought I was dying."
Even something as simple as using a tampon can lead to misconceptions. In many Latinx families, ideas like that tampons aren't safe or can even take your virginity are all too common — according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology, more Black and Latina English-speaking women reported that their mothers disapproved of tampons. "I was that young, Mexican girl whose mother called her a 'cochina' for even mentioning tampons," Novoa said. "Which tia started the rumor at the family party that tampons took your virginity? Even now, I'm 34, and when I told my mom I switched to a menstrual cup, she gave me the look."
Beyond the mental health ramifications of these stigmas, Latinx people are the most likely to experience period poverty — meaning they cannot afford period products. According to a new study by BMC Women's Health Journal, in 2020, one in five first-generation students experienced period poverty and one in 10 college students couldn't afford menstrual-health products, with Latinx students at the forefront.
To help mitigate this situation affecting students, Novoa and CPP partnered with Chicago Public Schools after finding out most teachers had to buy period supplies for their students with their own money. "You would think schools would provide [period products], but that wasn't the case," Novoa said. "If teachers didn't supply pads or tampons, their students were missing school multiple days during their cycle if they didn't have access to menstrual products."
In addition to making period products more widely available and combating stigmas young people face around period, Novoa is on a larger mission to change the conversation around periods, especially within the Latinx community. "Our periods should be such a joyous moment, especially our first ones," she said. "However, so many of us experience them for the first time and are not equipped with the information, resources, or support we need to maintain our periods. Being educated about reproductive health is the first step in giving us the tools to advocate for our bodies."
For more information, resources, or to join the conversation, visit UbyKotex.com