Teens' Period Poverty Activism Has Stirred Lawmakers to Action
For many years, Laila Brown, a 16-year-old from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and her peers had conversations about the stigma of periods and the lack of period products at school. After learning about “period poverty,” or inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products and education, Brown and her older sister, Asia, 21, wanted to help.
In January 2021, they co-founded 601 for Period Equity, a menstrual equity organization named after the Vicksburg area code, that focuses on education, advocacy and distribution of free pads, tampons and other menstrual products.
“I remember hearing girls in the restroom [say], ‘I need some pads. My period just started, and I’m not prepared,’” Laila Brown told Stateline. “A lot of times it’s not only [about] not having access [to products], but it’s also being caught off guard. Sometimes people cannot afford to always have pads on deck.”
Currently, roughly half the states have a tampon tax, including Mississippi, according to Period Law, a legal organization that focuses on menstrual equity. A bill filed this session to repeal it died. Rather than waiting on legislative action to make period products more accessible, Brown’s organization distributed period packages to local schools, established a “Get Yours” program for Mississippians to request free delivery of products, and partnered with state advocacy organizations and lawmakers to reach more people with information and products.
Young people are at the forefront of a national movement fighting for menstrual equity, ensuring equitable access to menstrual products, education and safe reproductive care. Menstrual products can cost hundreds of dollars a year, and health advocates point out that period poverty has profound effects, including chronic absenteeism, mental and emotional stress, and health concerns. They want lawmakers to help by exempting feminine hygiene products from sales taxes and making products free and available in public spaces.
Fifteen states have enacted laws that provide period products in schools, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies. But some critics of legislation on the matter say repealing the tampon tax or providing free products would be too costly to states.
Beyond affordability and accessibility, advocates argue that menstrual products should be available in both boys and girls bathrooms, so transgender students are not excluded. Advocates also want the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to cover the costs of these products.
“There's so much regressive action happening in state legislatures right now when it comes to abortion, when it comes to trans rights and health, when it comes to education, that menstruation can't be sort of looked at in a vacuum,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author and fellow at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “How can we make these laws even stronger, more inclusive, and more far-reaching so that there is nobody for whom menstrual access is a barrier to their participation in public life?”
The pandemic has made the issue even more pressing.
Over the past two years, school closures, job losses and financial struggles have made it more difficult for many to get menstrual hygiene products. Women of color in the United States are more likely to experience poverty than White women, so they’re also more likely to have trouble paying for period supplies.
A 2021 survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of U by Kotex, a feminine care product brand by Kotex, found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to say they struggled to afford period products in the past year than White respondents. The percentage of respondents who said they used toilet paper, socks and other items to substitute for period products was up from 20% in 2018 to 35% last year.
During the 2021-2022 legislative session, five states and the District of Columbia enacted measures to make menstrual products available in schools, colleges and universities, or correctional facilities.
Governors in Alabama and California signed into law measures that provide free feminine hygiene products such as tampons and pads to students in Title I or high poverty middle and high schools. In Alabama, though, schools must apply for grants to pay for the products. Only female teachers, nurses or counselors can distribute the items, and only to female students.
In Illinois, lawmakers passed a measure that requires the state’s colleges and universities to make products available in the bathrooms and facilities on campus.
In January, the District of Columbia Council approved a measure to provide free pads and tampons in schools. One month later, Delaware Democratic Gov. John Carney signed legislation that gives free feminine hygiene products to youth in juvenile correctional facilities.
In Connecticut, state Rep. Kate Farrar, a Democrat, introduced a bill that will provide tampons and pads in girls and boys bathrooms in schools and in universities and correctional facilities. Farrar said local youth activists inspired her to offer the bill, which was included in a state budget measure signed by the governor.
“One of the student activists, her name is Joy, and she has been advocating for this for many years. She often captures it very well in saying, ‘You wouldn't expect to have to pay for toilet paper when you went to the restroom, just as we shouldn't expect to pay for a simple product required by our biology,’” Farrar said.
Initially, some of Farrar’s colleagues pushed back on the bill, questioning the need for products in both boys and girls bathrooms and the cost of providing them. Some said students needing the products should visit the school nurse’s office instead. Students have cited this as a barrier because a nurse may not be available or a teacher may not excuse them from class, Farrar said.
Under the budget law, the state will provide $2 million to give free products to students in grades 3 through 12. Lawmakers agreed to place the products in at least one boys bathroom and in all girls and all-gender bathrooms, Farrar said.
“I just think we've learned that periods don't stop during pandemics,” Farrar said. “We know that for so many of our students across the state, they've had to really make that choice between food and their education and access to menstrual products.”
In 2020, several lawmakers in Connecticut had rejected a similar bill because of concerns about the costs and the state legislature’s role in the matter, the Connecticut Post reported.
“I do feel this is something that could be handled through the state department of education and if this is as big of a concern as the advocates say it is, why couldn’t we just ask our board of education to look at this and let us know how much it could cost?” said Republican state Sen. Heather Somers, according to the paper.
Republican state Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria said local superintendents told her that all students have access to the nurse’s office when needed, the paper reported. “[The superintendent] also did a study and said for every 1,000 students needing these products, the cost would be approximately $45,000 to the school system.”
At least five other states are considering similar bills focused on schools and correctional centers.
In New Jersey, where lawmakers have filed at least 14 menstrual equity related bills, Democratic Assemblywoman Shanique Speight said the pandemic has exacerbated period poverty because some families lost jobs and some students didn’t have access to products in schools.
When her daughter got her first period during the pandemic, Speight educated her on menstrual health and period products. She then introduced a few bills, including one that would require homeless shelters to provide free period products and schools to excuse students for menstrual disorders, such as polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis, which can cause abnormal periods, excessive pain and infertility. There is another bill in New Jersey that would ensure schools provide free hygiene products in the bathrooms.
“We need to normalize saying the word ‘period,’ and women need not to be afraid to talk about their periods to anyone,” Speight said. “Getting our periods every month is not something that we can control; it’s a part of who we are and it’s a part of our lives.”
While states are moving in the right direction, the laws won’t have much effect if there is no funding for the bills or ways for schools to secure the funds from reimbursement requests or submitting a grant application to the state, said Jennifer Gaines, program director of the Alliance for Period Supplies, a program of the National Diaper Bank Network.
“We’re hearing from our partners in California that although they passed legislation and funded the reimbursement, schools aren’t educated on how to get the reimbursement,” she said. “They’ve been paying for their period products and distributing to their local communities … which has been a barrier.”
Women in Training
Since her freshman year of high school, Laila Brown, the co-founder of 601 for Period Equity, has struggled with talking about periods or going to the bathroom for fear of someone seeing her with menstrual products. Once she leaned into the fact that “periods are normal,” she said, she got more comfortable with sharing her experiences and encouraging other young women to do the same.
“It took me getting sick of doing all this extra stuff to [conceal] my period,” she said. “It took me choosing my peace over trying to cover this up like it’s a big secret.”
About three years ago, Brooke and Breanna Bennett, 14-year-old twin sisters in Montgomery, Alabama, visited their mother’s school, where she works as a teacher. The Bennetts witnessed girls going into their mother’s classroom asking for menstrual products. Unaware of period poverty, the two sisters asked their mom questions like, “Why are these girls asking for this stuff?” and “Don’t they already have it?”
In July 2019, the sisters started Women in Training, Inc., a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment and menstrual equity.
Through Women in Training, Inc., Brooke and Breanna provide monthly “WIT Kits,” which include tampons, pads, socks, shampoo, body wash, toothbrushes and more, to girls in their city. They also host annual fundraisers such as a 5K run and a Mother’s Brunch. The Bennett sisters inspired Alabama state Rep. Rolanda Hollis, a Democrat, to introduce her bill that requires K-12 schools to provide free products in bathrooms. Although it took three years for the bill to pass, Brooke and Breanna said their work is not done.
“I never thought that anything that I could do or say could really make a big impact in my community. I thought that when Women in Training started out, we were just going to donate to one organization,” Breanna said. “Just one and done. … We realized there was a way bigger demand for these products.”