The Price Young Girls Pay When Tampons Aren't Free

When students don't have access to menstrual products, they suffer academically and face potential health risks—and it's especially bad for those living in poverty. Because of this, New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is trying to make...

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Feb 29 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Sean Locke / Stocksy

One day during biology class last winter, Celeste Bond needed to go to the bathroom; she had felt that first painful cramp that told her her period started. But the substitute teacher wouldn't let her go. When Bond asked again — this time for a nurse's pass — he said no. He thought she needed the bathroom, anyway.

"I'm like, 'They're both kind of the same thing if you know what I'm saying,'" Bond, now 18, recalls. He didn't.

The third time she asked, Bond said she had a "female emergency." Still no. But Bond went anyway, without the teacher's pass she needed for the nurse, who would give her a pad. As with many young girls, Bond wasn't prepared that day because she didn't expect her period to start. Luckily, the nurse let it slide — after interrogating her about her period. Bond missed most of class and couldn't complete her required worksheet. And when she went back to the room, the substitute wouldn't let her in; a friend had to instead.

Her story isn't unique. After holding roundtables in June, New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland discovered youth across the city have to navigate a capricious web of school staff to get a pad or tampon, compromising their education in the process. A package of bills Ferreras-Copeland plans to introduce in the coming weeks seeks to close the supply gap by making menstrual products free and easily available in public schools, as well as in homeless shelters and correctional facilities.

This is a big stress in a lot of [the students'] lives.

"This is a big stress in a lot of [the students'] lives," says Ferreras-Copeland. But, she continues, when students have access to menstrual products in bathroom, they feel relieved and no longer lose valuable class time. "[They] have everything they need to have a successful day."

In some New York City schools, students who need sanitary supplies can go to the nurse. In others, they have to ask the counselor for a pass to the nurse, who'll make them sign in and explain why they didn't have a pad in the first place. Advocates say having to jump through hoops for menstrual care can be traumatizing, especially for the 21 percent of school-age children living in poverty. Students who can't access pads or tampons often can't concentrate in class, risk bleeding through their underwear, and are forced to miss class or school altogether, falling behind on lessons and grades. But non-menstruating peers, advocates say, already have everything they need in a school bathroom — toilet paper and hand soap.

"The minute you have to ask someone for something that you need for your normal bodily function, you're creating a barrier," says Ferreras-Copeland, who's also the City Council finance chair. "This is something you shouldn't have to ask for."

Menstrual products are essential items we need to manage our health and manage our productivity.

Many critics of the free tampon movement claim that the products are cheap, but that fails to account for low-income families forced to choose between spending their last $10 — the price of a 42-pack of name-brand heavy flow pads at CVS — on menstrual care or on food, says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. And chances are, she says, poor parents are shopping at their local bodega, where items cost far more. This means that low-income students have to wait until their parents have the money, which may not coincide with when their period actually starts.

Advocates say it's a matter of economic justice and public health: Stigma, poverty, and a lack of access negatively impact education and development. Aside from missing class and school, students are often forced to use menstrual items for long stretches of time, which puts them at higher risk for cervical cancer, toxic shock syndrome, and other health issues resulting from product overuse, research shows. This is especially true of women and girls living in developing countries, as documented by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other global health organizations. And, while similar research in the United States is scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests the effects of unreliable access is similar stateside.

"Menstrual products are essential items we need to manage our health and manage our productivity," says Weiss-Wolf, who teamed up with Cosmopolitan to organize a petition to end sales tax on menstrual products, dubbed "the tampon tax." She learned about the issue from North Jersey neighbor, Elise Joy, who with her daughters Emma, 16, and Quinn, 12, started Girls Helping Girls Period, a non-profit that collects and distributes menstrual products to girls in need.

Providing free tampons and pads to students is "a small price to pay to keep girls in class," says Weiss-Wolf.

Much of the backlash against free or tax-free menstrual care typically falls into four categories: "Worry about more important things," "Tampons and pads aren't that expensive," "It would be too expensive for the government to supply," and "Why should taxpayers fund a luxury?"

"That's like saying diarrhea is a luxury," says Nancy Kramer, founder of Free the Tampons, a national initiative to make menstrual products free and accessible in all bathrooms. "It makes no sense."

Advocates say providing free tampons and pads is equivalent to stocking toilet paper and hand soap — both of which are federally regulated by US Occupational Safety & Health Administration. No one is expected to walk around in public with a toilet paper roll in the event they're hit with a bad case of diarrhea, Kramer says. Why then can't menstruating youth have a safety net in public? (Free the Tampons found that 81 percent of women have gotten their period unexpectedly and didn't have the supplies they needed.)

"Sending a girl to the nurse's office as if they're sick is the wrong signal to send," says Kramer.

Kramer provides free menstrual items at the three offices of her creative agency, Resource/Ammirati. It costs $4.67 per female associate per year, she says. That's a little under $1,000 yearly for the 200 out of 350 workers who happen to menstruate.

While advocates agree sexism drives the opposition ("If men got their periods..." they muse), the sticking point is cost. Many critics claim governments can't afford to supply sanitary products on the taxpayer's dime, which would be valid logic if it were evenly applied, says Ferreras-Copeland. "When was the last time anybody asked what the cost was to give out free condoms? To provide toilet paper?" she asks.

For me, it's not even a discussion of cost. This is needed to bring dignity and respect back to young girls.

While Ferreras-Copeland is still calculating costs, the councilwoman said the city could spend about $100,000 to $250,000 annually per school district — or, between $3.1 million and $7.75 million a year for over half of the 1.1 million student population learning across 31 districts. Which, in the grand scheme, is not a lot. After all, Mother Jones reported that the Pentagon spent $2 million each year on toilet paper products for its 234 restrooms between 2010 and 2012 — the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters, though, only employs about 23,000 military and civilian workers.

Ferreras-Copeland hopes her legislation will take effect citywide at the start of the 2016-2017 school year. She's also in talks with the city administration to expand her pilot program providing free menstrual products at one Queens high school to one or two other school districts — potentially 390 bathrooms — by spring.

"For me, it's not even a discussion of cost," says Ferreras-Copeland, who supplies free condoms and menstrual products at her East Elmhurst district office. "This is needed to bring dignity and respect back to young girls."

As the issue gains traction culturally, advocates hope so will it legislatively. While many states have introduced anti-"tampon tax" bills, not many address the lack of menstrual products in public spaces. Wisconsin State Representative Melissa Sargent, though, recently introduced a bill that mandates free tampons in schools and state buildings, while her base of Dane County has made menstrual products available in seven county buildings. Columbus City Councilwoman Liz Brown also plans to develop legislation similar to Ferreras-Copeland's, but says she's "in the very early stages."

Sweeping legislative change may be a long shot, though, in the current conservative political climate, but the closely connected advocates vow to fight as long as people continue to menstruate.

"It's a matter of bathroom equality," says Kramer. "We have our periods whether we want to or not."