Two determined Astoria high school juniors have convinced the New York Department of Education to distribute menstrual products at school food-distribution sites during the coronavirus crisis.
“We are very pleased to announce that in response to our request the DOE has begun handing out period products at 211 meal hub sites,” Nicole Soret, 17, of Elmhurst, told THE CITY.
“The supplies are already there, in many cases just sitting in closets,” said Abdelwahab. “We need to take action now.”
But logistical hurdles and bureaucratic delays meant that nothing much happened for more than a month. Finally, with an assist from local Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the teens got action.
After remote-learning class on Wednesday, Soret said they had a “really productive” conference call with Nolan and Joyce Elie, director of state legislative affairs for the DOE.
“Thank you to the young people who brought this need to our attention,” Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesperson, told THE CITY. “Because of the advocacy of these young people, we are making the feminine hygiene supplies in our schools available to the public at many meal hubs across the city.”
The existing inventory of feminine hygiene products will be available at information tables set up at 211 school sites hosting meal hubs. Site locations are available at schools.nyc.gov/freemeals, Styer said.
“An Important Issue”
The teens’ campaign started as an assignment for a Global Exchange class taught by computer science instructor Emily Fields, 33. After introducing the class to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Fields asked students to come up with a project to improve health and education, reduce inequality or address climate change.
“We picked period poverty,” Abdelwahab said. “We go to an all-girls school and this seemed…”
“It seemed like such an important issue,” Soret chimed in, finishing her friend’s sentence.
New York City schools have distributed menstrual products since 2016. A state law, passed two years later, requires all public schools that serve students in grades 6 to 12 to provide feminine hygiene products in restrooms, at no cost. Three other states, California, Illinois and New Hampshire, have since passed similar legislation.
One in four U.S. teens has missed class because of lack of access to period products, according to a recent study by the nonprofit group PERIOD and menstrual underwear brand Thinx.
“Schools are supposed to supply pads and tampons, but we didn’t really see that happening,” Abdelwahab said. She and Soret initially planned to investigate how many schools were actually complying with the law.
“But then COVID happened and we had to change plans,” Abdelwahab said.
The pair quickly pivoted to a two-pronged campaign to both pressure the DOE to distribute pads and raise funds to supply non-DOE community food distribution sites with menstrual products.
Their GoFundMe had raised more than $3,000 as of Tuesday—enough for the students to purchase five pallets of pads and tampons for almost 5,000 people. PERIOD is shipping the supplies, which will go to sites run by grassroots organizations including LIC Relief, the Connected Chef, Queens Together and Woodside/Sunnyside COVID Relief.
“There are currently about 563,250 female students in New York City, 73 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged,” the pair wrote in an April 6 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. “WIth over 450,000 New Yorkers currently filing for unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, the added monthly cost of menstrual pads and tampons could cause undue hardship for many families.”
Queens Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and Brooklyn State Sen. Julia Salazar, chairs of the Task Force on Women’s Issues and the Committee on Women’s Health; and Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan/Queens) and Grace Meng (D-Queens) also lent their support.
“Part of ensuring students succeed and thrive during times of crisis means remembering and addressing the needs of students,” Nolan said in a statement. “To that end, it is critical that New York City’s students have access to the DOE’s feminine hygiene supplies.”
Maloney added, “Menstruation doesn’t stop because of COVID-19, and access to menstrual products remains a challenge and hardship for too many.”
For Abdelwahab and Soret, providing sanitary supplies along with meals is a no-brainer.
“When people think about basic needs they think food, water, clothing—but pads and tampons are really important,” she said. “We’re half the population.”
The young activists haven’t decided where they’d like to go to college, or even what they’ll study.
“I’m still not sure, but I am interested in advocacy to help people in need,” said Abdelwahab, the eldest of three with two brothers ages 12 and 11.
Soret, who has an older brother, 23, and younger sister, 14, added, “I’m also uncertain, but activism is something I’d like to pursue.”
Fields, who created the Global Exchange class eight years ago, applauded her students’ gumption and grit.
“I’m so proud of them,” she said. “The goal was to find something they’re passionate about, because that’s a life skill that will serve them well.”