This is the third article in a three-part series on the Period Project, which examines the scope and consequences of period poverty and assesses state progress toward achieving menstrual equity through legislation.
In the last of our three-part series on menstrual equity, highlighting our Period Project research study and forthcoming Period Project Report Cards, we report on schooling and access to menstrual products. Lack of access to menstrual supplies is a glaring issue worldwide, including in the United States. As we previously reported, it can be due to pharmacy deserts, food deserts and even the exorbitant costs associated with pads and tampons. In some states, sales taxes add to these costs.
In this article, we turn to schools and youth, noting there remains tremendous shaming and stigmatization associated with menstruation. These problems are compounded by poverty. For example, one in five teens struggle to afford menstrual products or are not able to purchase them at all. Over sixty percent have worn a tampon or pad for more than four hours because they needed to extend the life of their products.
For low-income families, parents worry about the ability to afford menstrual products for their daughters. Indeed, one-third of parents report concerns about their ability to afford menstrual products.
Even for teens that might be able to afford menstrual products, pads and tampons may not be available at school and machines may be out of stock or broken. For far too many, the only alternative is to improvise. This includes resorting to potentially unhygienic and unsafe methods, such as using newspaper, socks, rags or toilet paper; reusing products; or attempting to use products past their recommended time. These practices all risk infection and long-term gynecological complications. Youth may be more likely to find themselves in such situations, as they are less accustomed to managing their periods and may have unpredictable cycles. According to Reuters and Free the Tampon Association, 86 percdnt of American women have experienced the unanticipated onset of their period at a time when they did not have menstrual products on hand. Further, 79 percent have improvised methods to manage their periods.
California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia can count herself among the aforementioned 86 percent. Once, during a climate conference for political leaders, she suddenly started her period but did not have any menstrual products on hand. She went to every bathroom, the nurse’s station and the volunteer station in search of a pad or tampon, but none could be found. This experience prompted her to introduce AB 367 in California—the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021.
This California law, which takes effect at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year, requires access to free menstrual products in bathrooms of all public and charter schools, Cal State University campuses, and community colleges. “Having convenient and free access to these products means our period won’t prevent us from being productive members of society, and would alleviate the anxiety of trying to find a product when out in public,” Garcia said.
The law embodies an important step toward menstrual equity, but it remains to be seen whether and how the requirement will be enforced.
Based on research conducted for the Period Project, the United States does a poor job overall of ensuring access to menstrual products, even as some states are increasingly expanding access to free menstrual products in schools and prisons. Indeed, much work remains. As mentioned in Part I of this series, our findings will be detailed in Period Project Report Cards this fall, which will assign each state and the District of Columbia a grade on an A–F scale to evaluate their progress toward menstrual equity.
However, women in state legislatures are pushing a new agenda and it’s worth paying attention. Within the last five years, over a dozen states passed laws to require that menstrual products be made available free of charge in at least some schools—up from zero. Some cities have also stepped up. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for example, require that free products be made available in all public schools.
These advancements toward achieving menstrual equity are important, but should also include a nuanced lens that takes into account the needs of gender nonconforming and transgender youth who also need and deserve access to menstrual products. These youth face even greater obstacles to menstrual product accessibility due to stigma and practical challenges. For example, the bathrooms they use may not have menstrual product dispensers, adequate private stalls, or receptacles to properly dispose of used menstrual products. Problematically, menstrual equity laws do not uniformly require schools to ensure access to products for these students. In Maryland and Tennessee, for example, recent menstrual equity laws targeting youth apply only to female bathrooms and locker rooms. Thus, although our study notes progress in advancing menstrual equity at the school level, gaps and ambiguities remain, which may exacerbate existing discrimination and burdens.
Finally, efforts to combat period poverty among youth—and all menstruating individuals—represent an important part of destigmatizing menstruation and addressing sexism, transphobia, and bullying. Nearly 60 percent of women in the United States feel period shame and nearly half have experienced period-shaming by male friends, classmates, or even family members. And in one survey, the majority of teens reported feelings of shame, self-consciousness, and/or embarrassment about their periods, with 69 percent expressing embarrassment about bringing menstrual products to the bathroom. Schools may compound the problem by providing menstrual products only through a school nurse, which only further stigmatizes menstruation by suggesting it is an illness that requires medical attention and intervention.
A key lesson from our Period Project research is that ensuring access to menstrual products in all schools, for youths of all gender identities, is about more than just convenience. It is about dignity, equity and human rights. Accessible and affordable menstrual products facilitate full participation in education and society more generally. State laws requiring access to menstrual products free of charge represent a crucial component of ending period poverty and achieving menstrual equity.
Parts I and II of the Period Project report can be found here.