Julissa Ferreras, a Queens City Councilwoman and head of their Financial Committee is advocating for destigmatization of menstruation and free tampons in high school restrooms, which will hopefully spread to middle and high schools across the nation. She is helping develop a plan to provide free tampons to teenage girls in the city. For starters, Ferreras wants free tampons to be available in high school bathrooms, though her goal is to eventually bring increased accessibility to women or uterus-havers of all ages and circumstances; she aims to "eliminate the stigma and enact legislation to make these essential products more accessible to young girls, women with low-income, and women who are incarcerated." Homeless women are especially in need of greater accessibility to feminine hygiene products. Ferreras says, “In a city where we hand out free condoms, we should be making tampons more affordable and accessible.”
Tampons are hygienic products that many girls and women require on a monthly basis, and the expenses add up, especially when you're a teenager who might not even have a part-time job. Additionally, tampons are often stigmatized by conservative parents who believe the insertion of one will take away their daughter's virginity, so if these girls don't like the feeling of pads — and many don't — they have to rely on a source other than their parents to obtain tampons. Schools should act as a safe space where girls can comfortably access necessary feminine hygiene products that may be out of their reach otherwise.
I got my first period in sixth grade during recess, and, of of course, the school didn't have any pads or tampons available in the bathroom. As students one by one began menstruating for the first time, mean gossip spread amongst the students about how "grossed out" they were by pubescent girls, causing one of my fellow 11-year-old friends to actually utter the heartbreaking words, "I'm so ashamed," when her period somehow became schoolyard news.
Since this was the culture surrounding me, the last thing I wanted to do was approach the school nurse and ask for a feminine hygiene product. I would be humiliated. Could there be anything more shameful? Instead, I spent the day uncomfortable and embarrassed with a sweatshirt tied around my waist as I gave a presentation in English class. I cried on my way home.
It is crucial for the tampons to be available at schools in a private location like the restroom. The embarrassment and shame that society attaches to menstruation, a normal and common function of a healthy body, can cause girls to miss out on their education during their time of the month — especially in other countries. On her Facebook, Ferreras explains:
When I worked at the Beacon Program in Corona, young girls would skip class because they preferred that to asking staff for pads or risk staining their clothes.
In a city where we hand out free condoms, we should be making essential feminine hygiene products more affordable and accessible. It's a matter of avoiding health risks, affordability and women's equality.
Ferreras is also petitioning Albany "to exempt all feminine hygiene products from the sales tax." This is happening at a time when women and activists across the globe are protesting the unfair taxes placed on pads and tampons,while other health products like condoms, sunscreen, lube, and nicotine patches, deemed necessary for health, remain untaxed. In an article for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes:
In the United States, access to tampons and pads for low-income women is a real problem, too: food stamps don’t cover feminine hygiene products, so some women resort to selling their food stamps in order to pay for “luxuries” like tampons… [And] though breast pumps, vasectomies and artificial teeth are sales tax-exempt and tax-deductible medical care, tampons are not even exempted from sales tax in some states (including California and New York, two of the most populous states).
Here are four organizations advocating for increased access and affordability of feminine hygiene products worldwide:
1. Aidlink and the Girl Child Network
In rural areas of Kenya, the beginning of menstruation "can mean an end to education" for girls because they don't have access to feminine hygiene products that will allow them to comfortably maneuver a public space, rather than bleed through their clothes. Aidlink and the Girl Child Network provide "water tanks, girl-friendly latrines, sanitary towels, underwear and the delivery of sexual maturation training" so that pubescent girls will not be stigmatized or shamed out of an education, and so that they will remain sanitary and comfortable during menstruation.
2. Free the Tampons
Free the Tampons' mission is to end restroom inequality in the United States. As stated on their website, "All public bathrooms provide free toilet paper, soap, and even seat covers—but tampons? That's another story." The organization utilizes social media in their campaign, asking advocates to tweet which public restrooms do or do not provide free tampons in order to track access. Nancy Kramer, who heads the organization, is "dedicated to influencing schools, airports, stadiums and other public places to stock feminine-care products at no charge," especially since a survey revealed that 86 percent of women have unexpectedly began their periods with no hygienic products on hand.
3. Huru International
Huru International, based in Nairobi, provides menstruation kits to young girls in rural areas of the region. Similarly to Aidlink and the Girl Child Network, Huru International hopes that access to menstrual health supplies will educate girls about their bodies and allow them to remain in school throughout menstruation. Huru International is especially focused on providing washable, reusable pads to make the kits more affordable and sustainable: "each kit contains five standard-size pads and three extra-long overnight pads, three pairs of panties, a sturdy ziplock bag, and a big bar of soap."
4. SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises)
Based in Rwanda, SHE helps the local economy and increases employment opportunities, all while providing access to cheaper menstrual hygiene products. In 2014, 18 percent of women and girls were absent from school or work "because they could not afford to buy menstrual pads." SHE provides training, equipment, and supplies to girls and women so that they can manufacture menstrual pads and sell them to schools and communities at an affordable price.