Periods. They’ve been a monthly occurrence during the reproductive lives of most people with ovaries at least since humans walked upright on the planet. And yet, for at least the last millennium, they were reason for many societies to limit the participation of women, girls, and some transgender and non-binary folks in education, work, and other social functions. Mass production of sanitary products began to change those dynamics and grow the American middle-class during the first half of the last Century, but today, there are still thousands of young people across the country who still lack the funds to pay for them.
Concerned with the impact this can have on class attendance, there is a growing movement to provide menstrual hygiene products in schools and workplaces for free, and during this Women’s History Month, UnidosUS joined that effort by expressing its support of a bill in the Florida legislature known as ‘Learning with Dignity’ or SB242. Sponsored by Florida Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, the bill would provide sanitary napkins, pads, and tampons in all female restrooms in Florida’s K-12 public school facilities.
“Girls pay a price when these products aren’t free—and providing them will go a long way toward equity in education,” Book stated in a December 14 press release announcing the bill.
According to a recent survey cited by Book, one in five girls have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to menstrual products. The study showed that on average, people with periods spend anywhere between $150 to $300 a year on menstrual products, a steep price for a state where 66% of Florida public school children qualify for free or reduced lunch. This issue hits Black and Latinx students especially hard. According to data UnidosUS collected from the Florida Department of Education, 62.9% of Latinx students and 73.7% of Black students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” To make matters more complicated, these products can’t be purchased through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest federal nutrition assistance program.
“Menstrual equity in schools is an absolutely intersectional issue across economic status, gender justice, education access, and child health. No child should have their school day interrupted because they were unprepared or could not afford menstrual products,” says UnidosUS Florida Policy Analyst Raisa Sequeira. “Florida’s Learning with Dignity Act would help students stay in the classroom and prevent the embarrassment of a period-related accident during the school day and Ashley Eubanks’ advocacy has been critical on this.”
The menstrual equity movement for students has been growing since a similar bill was first filed in California in 2017, and today, in addition to Florida, related bills have been filed in Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Virginia.
“Statistics on the cost of menstrual products assume that everyone has ready access to tampons, sanitary pads, and other essential menstrual related products. But across the world, many people struggle to acquire the menstrual products they need,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Tania Valencia, noting that according to data collected by UnidosUS, 23% of Black Latinos and 18.3% of all Latinos in the United States are experiencing poverty.
In Florida, menstrual equality legislation was born out of a grassroots movement to accommodate for any person in need of such hygiene products. In fact, one of its main proponents is Ashley Eubanks, founder and CEO of a South Florida non-profit known as The Beauty Initiative, which has donated more than 800,000 free hygiene products in high-need situations throughout the United States and abroad over the past five years.
“In 2016, my life changed forever when I saw a woman in need and in soiled clothing,” notes Eubanks on her organization’s website. That day, she made it her mission to change perceptions and outcomes of period poverty, using her campaigns to look at hygiene as a human right.
Thanks to this kind of consciousness raising, in 2019, the state of Florida enacted similar legislation in the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which requires the state to provide menstrual products in prison facilities.
“A period should end a sentence; it shouldn’t end education,” Eubanks was quoted as saying in Books’ press release. “Senator Book’s Learning with Dignity bill will ensure hygiene is not a luxury for girls in Florida’s public schools.”
The consequences go beyond just missing class says Reva McPollom, founder and CEO of the virtual K-12 health education program Lessonbee.com.
“When young girls experience period poverty, the thought that they are being betrayed by their own bodies grows. They perceive themselves as powerless against the physical, mental, and emotional hurdles that come with periods,” she says, adding that cultural or religious taboos may also impact a student’s ability to access these products. “This has many implications in how young women deal with relationships, sexual harassment and abuse, and self–image.”
But providing menstrual hygiene products can turn all of that around she affirms.
“Providing young women with adequate menstrual health empowers them in a way where they realize that their body is truly theirs. This matters a lot in the areas of self-esteem, academic outlook, and how they see their future. It also establishes good practices on listening to your body, providing proper self–care, and communicating health issues.”
In the event that these products are also made available in other parts of a school, such as a nurse’s station, McPollom says it’s important to make sure clinic staff receive proper guidance in how to lead the discussion.
“Negative experiences may lead to more avoidance in discussing sexual health,” she says, adding that in addition to training staff to engage young people around uncomfortable conversations, it might be important to have posters and stickers in the clinic or near bathroom dispensers where girls and transgender or non-binary students can go to seek help for anything related to their sexual or reproductive health.
Eubanks agrees. In fact, she told ProgressReport.co that next year’s version of the bill will contain language advocating for “all who menstruate” to make it more gender inclusive.
She also notes that even when products are accessible, a lot of students don’t know how to use them because for many students, “the talk is not happening” within their families.
Eubanks says she has observed this in her own classrooms, and the absence of such knowledge seems be more pronounced within certain cultural or ethnic groups. She finds that the families of many Black students only offer “bits and pieces” of information, and that many of her students from traditional Latin American, Caribbean, and Indian homes either shun menstruation or don’t talk about it at all.
But that’s not always the case, in fact, in the Black household where she grew up, her father talked positively and openly about menstrual hygiene with her and her brother. She keeps these contrasting scenarios in mind as she builds her advocacy among students, educators, families, and legislators.
“We’re trying to make this something that is normal,” she says. This should be something that we take just as seriously as bathing or brushing our teeth and getting cleanings, but the education has to be there.”
Texas, another key state for UnidosUS’s work, does not have a menstrual equity bill for schools but it has Texas House Representative Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, has introduced HB 321, a bill that would prohibit the taxing of feminine hygiene products. UnidosUS is also showing its support for that legislation.
“Texas needs to join the rest of the first-world. We shouldn’t be placing a tax burden against people who menstruate for something they need. The men in the legislature who are afraid of touching this subject, much less stepping up and putting it on the governor’s desk, should take a look at their families, mothers, and wives and tell them why they think it’s okay for them to spend even more money on these products,” says UnidosUS Texas Strategist Manuel Grajeda.
“The true cost of menstrual equity is priceless and bills such as these are key to ensuring the safety of people who menstruate in all public spaces. Providing free menstrual products foster a sense of community where schools and employers can collectively contribute to everyone’s well-being,” says Valencia. “Implementing these measures does not mean that students and staff who menstruate will be given special treatment. They are simply based on a foundation of equity rather than having a student, or their educators, miss school, work, or an event due to lacking menstrual hygiene products.”