Opinion: Menstrual Equity for All
by Meg Fee and Megan Yeh, Co-Directors of Policy for Sanford Women in Policy
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.
For the month of February, Sanford Women in Policy has partnered with Cora to provide free menstrual products to Sanford students, faculty, and administrators.
This past summer, Scotland became the first country in the world to make menstrual products free for all students in an effort to fight period poverty.
When asked about the aim of the initiative, Councillor Alison Evison, said that the primary purpose of the program was to ensure that no individual missed a day of school due to the lack of necessary resources.
In the United States, nearly one in five girls has missed school because they lack access to the necessary menstrual products. Not only are menstrual products not free in the U.S., but 36 states still tax them as a luxury good. SNAP doesn’t cover them, and the IRS doesn’t classify them as medical devices, which means they’re excluded from flexible and health savings accounts.
In 2004, Kenya became the first country to abolish sales tax on menstrual products. Canada followed suit in 2015, Colombia and India in 2018, and Australia at the start of this year.
Over the summer, Democratic Representative Sean Patrick Maloney purchased menstrual products for his staff and visitor bathrooms. The expense was rejected by the Committee on House Administration on the grounds that menstrual products are “personal care items.” Paper towels, band-aids, embellished letter openers, and wooden tissue holders were all approved.
Federal regulations require that all restrooms provide toilet paper and hand soap in bathrooms. One must wonder, why not tampons? Why not pads? Non-menstruating individuals have everything they need when they go to the bathroom, we believe those who menstruate should have the same.
As a group, Sanford Women in Policy made the decision to provide free menstrual products in the women’s bathrooms in Sanford and the gender-inclusive bathroom in Rubenstein for the month of February. A university is a place of academic rigor and intellectual growth, but inequitable access to necessary supplies exists as a barrier to those ends. We believe that provision of menstrual products is an issue of equity.
But beyond access, we wanted to contribute to a larger conversation in which we speak openly about destigmatizing menstruation. Ignorance and discomfort related to periods is linked to feelings of shame, confusion, and a lack of protection for those who bleed. In the United States, homeless and low-income individuals are particularly vulnerable. The price of menstrual products can prove prohibitive, leading some individuals to forgo using pads or tampons - or instead, prolong the use of a single pad or tampon which can lead to infection. Additionally, the FDA, charged with ensuring the safety of drugs, products, and – yes – medical devices, does not require companies to disclose the ingredients found in the products.
Internationally, menstrual shame and stigma are rampant. On Monday, a 21-year-old woman died in Nepal when she was forced to stay in a “menstruation hut” while on her period. She lit a fire to keep herself warm and died of smoke inhalation. Her death follows that of another Nepalese woman and her two children a month ago. Approximately 1 in 4 girls in India drop out of school upon reaching puberty. This dropout decreases by nearly 90% when girls have access to menstrual supplies.
But making pads and tampons available to Sanford students is about more than access. We see it as an opportunity to increase education and awareness around the global issue of menstrual equity. We hope that by having open conversations and increasing awareness, we can help destigmatize menstruation and empower others to fight for gender equality. Already, we have seen changes at Sanford. A few days before our pilot program began, anonymous pink bags with menstrual products appeared in the restrooms. Building management has kindly and quietly undertaken to fill the dispensers in Rubenstein with free products. As soon as the locks on the product boxes are changed, they will do the same in Sanford.
The value of this cannot be overstated. We’ve done the math. We anticipate the cost will be about $5 per student. Looking at the first and second year MPP classes, with approximately 85 female-identifying students, the cost of provision should be about $425 a year. But it’s not just about the cost, it’s also about the implicit message and the value embedded in that message – we see you, we recognize you, and we respect your needs.
We are incredibly grateful for our time here at Sanford. It is not lost on us how lucky we are that we will graduate Duke with the chance to head into the world and affect policy. It is our great hope that in crafting policy, we never lose sight of the dignity of all individuals – the right of each person to access any and all necessary resources that will allow them to manifest their full potential. We believe menstrual products are a part of that equation – and their free provision is a necessary step in the continued fight for gender equality.
Sanford Women in Policy is a student-led organization dedicated to addressing challenges and opportunities for women in public policy. It is led by second-year MPPs, Kelsey Gold and Kristen Jensen.
Meg Fee is a second-year MPP student interested in design-thinking, innovation, and gender equality.
Megan Yeh is a second-year MPP student studying international development, global health, and energy and the environment.