When Eva Marie Carney read a news story a few years ago about period poverty in Native North America, she became aware of an issue she hadn’t considered. She knew she needed to use the resources she was tapped into to help young menstruators who are Native or live in predominantly Native communities.
Carney is a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation headquartered in Shawnee, Oklahoma, as well as a member of the Tribal Legislature.
She read stories from the Pine Ridge Reservation and elsewhere, which opened her eyes to “period poverty” – a lack of access to period supplies – in North America. There has been a substantial amount written about period poverty abroad in locations as diverse as South Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but Carney realized she could make a difference at home.
“When I looked around and tried to figure out who else was helping, I didn’t find other organizations dedicated to helping Native people,” she said. “I started by helping students on rural reservations and we later expanded to city and suburban communities.”
Even before the pandemic exacerbated inequities, one in five teens in the U.S. struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all, according to a study commissioned by a nonprofit organization and a period underwear company.
From the onset, Carney said she wanted to make sure she was supporting menstruators through dignity and greater access. In 2018, The Kwek Society, a nonprofit organization, was created. Kwe’k means “women” in the Potawatomi language, so it means The Women’s Society.
In Native cultures, the time during the period is often referred to as “moon time,” according to the organization’s website. So early on, Carney received help from some fellow tribal citizens who designed moon time bags that the organization now distributes across Indian County. They are colorful cotton bags sewn by supporters and stuffed with pads and liners. Each bag comes with a message of celebration from The Kwek Society.
The Kwek Society is based in Arlington, Virginia, and ships from there most of the period supplies to the eight U.S. states the organization supports, Carney said.
“While I continue to do a lot of personalized, individualized shopping locally for the schools and groups we support, I do now have a couple of great suppliers from whom we can order directly — we now have a supplier of organic pads, for example, and these pads have been really well received. Students find them thin and nice but absorbent,” she said. “[The pads] are shipped directly from our source in Washington State, which is great, because that eliminates the middle person (me) who would need to buy and ship supplies each time they are needed.”
The Kwek Society currently supports more than 70 partners – schools and communities – across North America. During 2020, the organization, with the support of partners, including foundations and individuals, furnished 303,800 period supplies, 3,429 moon time bags, and puberty education books. This year, with schools more or less back in session as of Fall 2021, the organization increased these numbers, furnishing 407,467 period supplies, and 5,034 moon time bags, and puberty education books.
In addition to supplies, the organization also offers educational resources, including sharing information about an app called OKY, which was developed by UNICEF as the world’s first period tracking and reproductive health education app, designed with the help of young people.
Carney is particularly excited about OKY, as it is a free and reliable source of period tracking and reproductive health education that can be downloaded to mobile phones and functions offline. The Kwek Society website also includes links to traditional teaching and culturally relevant teachings about periods and menstruation.
Carney said that she believes period poverty looks the same in urban and rural environments, but that rural areas may face some greater economic obstacles. There tend to be fewer large retail stores in rural areas, she noted, so it’s harder to get supplies on what are universally expensive period products at a discounted price. Further, wages may be less in rural areas, so purchasing period products can very quickly deplete a family’s disposable income.
“With Covid, during the first waves of the pandemic in 2020, the disparities were even more extreme in areas like the Navajo Nation, because a lot of the very rural stores weren’t getting deliveries,” she said. “Some of the communities were totally locked down. If period supplies and other necessities weren’t brought in, in a safe manner, people were not going to have any supplies.”
Another factor is that in rural areas there just aren’t as many people to support creating organizations and other groups to help address issues that arise, she said.
“This is a poverty issue. And there’s poverty throughout our country,” she added.
At the Tohaali Community School, a Bureau of Indian Education school in Newcomb, New Mexico, Principal Delores P. Bitsilly said she is grateful for the partnership with The Kwek Society. Living in such an isolated area, many do not have transportation or money for gas to obtain period products, she said.
“The students feel confident in asking for items as they know we have them readily available all due to The Kwek Society,” Bitsilly wrote in an email.
Carney noted that people can donate to help the cause, conduct a drive or connect the organization with potential partners.