Editor’s Note: Nadya Okamoto is the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization PERIOD. Maria Molland is the CEO of Thinx Inc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
Public awareness about period poverty, the inability to access menstrual hygiene products, has ignited a movement calling for free and accessible pads and tampons in restrooms and public spaces around the world. Period poverty impacts millions of people every day and is pervasive in US schools.
Across the country, thousands of students lack the resources to manage basic menstrual hygiene and are denied equal learning opportunities, as they often skip school or classes while having their period as a result. According to a recent study, a startling one-in-five teens have struggled to afford period products or have not been able to purchase them at all, and one-in-four teens have missed class due the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.
People with periods are taught from a young age that one of our body’s natural processes is something to be ashamed of, and something we should go to great lengths to conceal. We’re taught to hide our period products in our sleeves on the way to the restroom, and constantly check our clothes for any leaks or stains. The reality of period poverty, combined with the social stigma attached to having a period, like whispering for a tampon in the middle of class or the perception that periods are strictly prohibited as a topic of conversation, has long-lasting implications on a student’s life. Rather than face the stress and shame associated with these conversations, many students just choose to skip school altogether. In fact, students reported that stress and shame were the most common emotions that they associated with menstruation.
The good news is that the menstrual equity movement has been gaining momentum, with policy proposals and pilot programs getting adopted in high schools and on university campuses, as well as legislation calling for the elimination of the ‘tampon tax’ or ‘pink tax’ at the state and municipal levels.
For example, Ohio recently passed a proposal repealing the state’s sales tax on menstrual products in the House with unanimous support. Connecticut eliminated the “tampon tax” in 2016 as part of the S 502 bill, which went into effect in July of 2018.
New York City now provides menstrual hygiene products free of charge in public schools, prisons and homeless shelters, acknowledging that menstrual hygiene products should be treated and supplied just like toilet paper, soap and water. This removes all financial burdens for students who struggle to afford period products, and stigma by placing these products in a place where students can access them without having to draw attention to the need for them in the first place.
While we are beginning to see change, there is still a lot to be done to achieve universal access to these products for every young person who needs them.
It’s no secret that the tampon tax places an unfair financial burden on people with periods who already earn less than their cisgender male counterparts. Removing these barriers to make period products more affordable is a crucial first step toward leveling the playing field. Proper hygiene is a right, not a luxury.
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Second, Congress must pass federal legislation like the proposed Menstrual Equity for All Act sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng that would enable states to use federal grants to provide students nationwide with period products in schools, require Medicaid to cover the cost of period products and let individuals use their own pre-tax dollars from flexible spending accounts to purchase menstrual products. The legislation currently has 63 Democratic cosponsors.
Third, lawmakers need to prioritize medically accurate sex education at the state level. Period education should be accessible and available for all students, and is possible under the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act.
Period poverty is an unacceptable national epidemic. Let’s start by acknowledging that far too many students in our schools are unable to afford basic health products like tampons and pads. Only by acknowledging this tragic reality can we begin to take the steps that we need to dismantle this problem and ensure that everyone has access to the period products they need to live and thrive.