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Meet The Women Fighting To End Period Poverty On Native American Reservations

The top tips from experts on building girls' resilience to take on challenges and overcome setbacks.

When she was a sophomore, Tierra Baird faced a situation most girls dread: she started her period, and she didn't have a pad or a tampon. For girls on Native American reservations, like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where Tierra lives, being without a pad usually isn't a case of being caught by surprise. Often, they simply can't afford them. "It is incredibly difficult to have [menstrual products,]" says Clare Huerter, the principal at Red Cloud High School, Tierra's school. "There is a store in town, but prices are just insane." But an organization called the Kwek Society, named for the Potawatomi word for "woman", is tackling period poverty on reservations. Their donations of menstrual products are helping provide girls at Red Cloud with the menstrual products — and dignity — that they deserve.

The Kwek Society was founded by 60-year-old Eva Marie Carney last September, in response to the shocking rate of period poverty on Native American reservations. A 2017 survey by the brand Always found that one in five American girls left or missed school because they didn't have period products. There are no statistics to show what the rate is on reservations, but that same year, then-17-year-old Dominique Amiotte said that as many as half of her friends couldn't afford tampons or pads. The average per capita income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is $9,150, and the nearest Wal-Mart is an hour away. Instead, girls pay a premium for their menstrual products: the Huffington Post found that a box of 20 tampons cost $7.39 at the gas station store closest to Dominique's school, Crazy Horse School, while at Wal-Mart, a box of 18 sells for $3.97. "The cost of period supplies is very high and the money to pay for them isn’t there," Carney tells TODAY.

The price of these products means that many girls don't have access to their own supply. "Money was a little bit tight," Tierra admits of the time she was caught without a pad; her parents were divorcing and the family was struggling financially. "I would ask some friends for tampons when I needed them." But she certainly didn't feel comfortable telling other adults about the situation: "I would be too embarrassed so it was something I wouldn’t talk about." For Carney, the result is unsurprising: "[Girls] are suffering the indignities of using things other than pads or tampons like wadded up toilet paper," she says, "[or they] are missing school for all or part of the time that they have their periods." Julia Chipps, the school nurse at Crazy Horse School, says it's hard to see girls using makeshift materials or walking around with stained clothing: "They shouldn’t feel like they’re being punished for being a girl."

"I've always supported efforts to get supplies to women in impoverished nations," Carney told the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s newspaper, "but [I] thought, 'My goodness, Native American girls' lack of supplies is very close to home, and I don't know anything about it. How is that possible?" The Kwek Society collects donations of funds or menstrual products, and approaches schools, tribal councils, and other groups to ask if they could use supplies like pads and tampons. The organization is less than a year old, but it has already donated either products or funds in 23 schools and communities in three different states. Carney had just approached Red Cloud when she found out that Tierra was working on a senior project designed to make menstrual products more accessible. Tierra won a $1,000 grant that allowed her to install dispensing machines in the school's bathrooms; donations from the Kwek Society filled them. "It was absolutely perfect," says Huerter. "It is just aligning really well with what the students want and need."

Lawyer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand for Menstrual Equity, says that it's critical to fight for fair, easy access to menstrual products for all girls and women. "Does anybody question toilet paper in public restrooms?" she asks. “We treat it as a given, no one asks about the toilet paper budget.... Menstruation is a basic part of the human condition for half the population, but it’s been stigmatized for basically all of our existence. If we acknowledge that people who menstruate are fuller participants in society when their needs are accounted for, we would find this to be a no-brainer."

Equally importantly, Linda Arredondo, a tribal member and a member of the Kwek Society's board, says that providing menstrual products helps girls achieve their potential. "I want them to be able to focus on their studies, especially if they are technically inclined," she says, "and to not have that worry in the back of their mind about 'Oh, I'm female. I also have this other thing to worry about." Tierra is an example of how girls can succeed when they have the supplies they need: she's attending Stanford University next year, hoping to study health-related fields that will allow her to help more Native American girls and women. "A girl missing school because she has her period is just unacceptable," Carney says. "Because of our work and our donors' contributions to date, there are girls that now are just able to go about their business of being good students.... Being comfortable with the fact that they are becoming women is critical to girls' feelings of self-worth and confidence and the ability to excel in school and in life."

You can learn how to support the Kwek Society's work on their website.

Resources About Menstruation

The Dot Girl First Period Kit

The Dot Girl First Period Kit

Recommended Age: 9 and up

Everything you need for your first period is tucked away in this neat little package! This handy kit from Dot Girl includes a book of 20 common questions, as well as pads, disposal bags, hand wipes, and a reusable heating pad, all of which pack away in a carrying case that fits in a purse or a backpack. The pack also includes a period diary to help her track her first year of cycles. This kit assumes some degree of knowledge — it’s not for teaching her all about menstruation, but for reminding her of key points — but the included supplies will make sure that she doesn’t get caught without the products she needs.

Amazon.co.uk

It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families

It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families

Written by: Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by: Michael Emberley
Recommended Age: 7 - 10

Girls are starting their periods younger — sometimes as young as 9 or 10 — so it’s a good idea to introduce the idea of menstruation to girls sooner than you might expect. It's So Amazing is about general sexuality education, but includes a discussion of the menstrual cycle and its role in a woman’s body. If you want to introduce this idea early — and especially if your daughter seems to be an early developer — this is a great book to start talking more seriously about the changes that come with puberty. Author Robie H. Harris and illustrator Michael Emberley have collaborated on three books about sexuality education; for the other two volumes, check out It's NOT The Stork for ages 4 to 8 and It's Perfectly Normal for ages 10 and up.

Period: A Girl's Guide

Period: A Girl's Guide

Recommended Age: 9 - 13

This pocket guide by JoAnn Loulan and Bonnie Worthen is an great look at everything to do with menstruation. It answers the basic questions of how things work, as well as practical questions like how to decide between pads and tampons; how to handle period-related issues like cramps, PMS, and even how to remove accidental stains; and what happens during a pelvic exam. A calendar at the back will also get her started charting her cycle, so that she can start figuring out what’s typical for her in terms of cycle length, period length, and heaviness of flow.

The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls

The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls

Written by: Cara Natterson
Illustrated by: Josee Masse
Recommended Age: 10 - 13

This much beloved guide includes general information about growth and development, as well as specific period-related questions like what to do about menstrual cramps and how to use a tampon correctly. Girls who understand the basics of puberty but want more information will find this book accessible and reassuring, and it's also an excellent option for parents who want a book focusing strictly on anatomy and hygiene, without a discussion of sexuality and intercourse. Parents of younger tweens should also check out the first volume, The Care and Keeping of You 1, which covers similar information with slightly less detail for ages 8 to 12.

HelloFlo: The Guide. Period.

HelloFlo: The Guide. Period.

Written by: Naama Bloom
Recommended Age: 10 and up

This is definitely not your mother's puberty book! HelloFlo founder Naama Bloom's mission is to create informed, empowered young women who are unafraid to ask questions and make the best choices for themselves and their bodies. In The Guide. Period, she's created a celebration of women's bodies and all the confusing, uncomfortable, silly, transformative, and powerful changes that occur during puberty. This full-color book features bright, diverse, approachable illustrations and infographics (on everything from how to insert a tampon to a timeline of body hair trends throughout history), doctor-vetted information, and personal testimonials from real girls and women.

Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen's Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body

Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen's Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body

Written by: Toni Weschler
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Older girls may be getting used to their menstrual cycle, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from further information. Cycle Savvy goes into much more detail about female reproductive anatomy, general gynecological health, and physical and emotional changes during the menstrual cycle. Author Toni Weschler also advocates charting your cycle, not just so that a girl knows when to expect her next period, but also so that she is in tune with her fertility and reproductive health, and therefore more alert to changes that could signal a health issue. After reading this book, girls will be confident that they understand just how their menstrual cycle works.

Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement

Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement

Written by: Nadya Okamoto
Illustrated by: Rebecca Elfast
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Nadya Okamoto founded PERIOD to tackle period poverty — and period stigma. Now she's created a unique period book that not only explains the real nuts and bolts of menstruation, smashing myths along the way, but also urges girls to take a stand about the need for better menstrual education, easier access to menstrual products, and more. Packed with useful information about both managing your period and engaging in youth activism, and full of alternately intriguing and infuriating information about how policy decisions about menstruation exclude those affected, this is both a critical health resources and a demand for justice.

Written by: Jennifer Weiss-Wolf
Recommended Age: Adults

Why are so many people reluctant to talk about periods? Why do we expect toilet paper to be free but pads and tampons to be at our own expense? And what happens to a girl or woman who can't get the menstrual products and health care she needs? In this powerful book, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a menstrual equity activist who's been championing the fight to eliminate the tampon tax, tackles the place of menstruation in our cultural and political landscape, highlights innovators trying to change the period game, and challenges us all to fight the stigma about menstruation head on.

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