New York City just passed a groundbreaking series of bills requiring free menstrual products in public schools, prisons and shelters, “making it the first city in the nation to pass so-called “menstrual equity” legislation,” according to New York Mag’s The Cut. Mayor Bill de Blasio still needs to sign the bills, but his tweet on the matter seems promising:
Excited to partner with @NYCCouncil to make NYC the largest city to guarantee free
tampons and pads at public schools, shelters and jails.
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) June 21, 2016
The sheer importance of these bills cannot fully be understood without understanding how the menstrual cycle affects those with uteruses and what menstrual equity is.
The Menstrual Cycle Can Be More of a Curse than a Blessing
The menstrual cycle is typically understood as the turning point in a person’s life. It means that individual will bleed every month, that they can become pregnant, and to some, that they’ve entered into adulthood (or, to those adhering to the gender binary, that they’ve “become woman.”) However, in some places, the menstrual cycle can also been seen as a curse and a taboo, affecting the daily life of those menstruating enormously.
According to The Huffington Post and the organization Her Turn, “In Nepal, approximately 30 percent of girls miss school each month as a result of their periods.” The Girl Effect writes that in “In Sierra Leone, more than a fifth of girls miss school because of their periods. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of 10 girls miss school for the same reason.” This can be due to taboos or lack of access to sanitary napkins. According to The Guardian, in some regions in India and Nepal, those who are menstruating are banished to huts for the duration of their period. This isolation keeps them away from others, and occasionally in dangerous situations. The Huffington Post reports that in Nepal, “animal attack, snake bites, hypothermia in winter and asphyxiation from fires that are made in the huts often cause deaths when women sleep alone away from their homes and family.”
Painful menstruation can also keep individuals out of work. CBS News reports that according to “the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, up to 50 percent of women experience a painful period — a medical condition known as dysmenorrhea — for at least one or two days at some point in her lifetime.” Jezebel found in a 2012 online study that “10% of women…have to call in sick due to the severity of their menstrual cramps.” The health app Clue did a survey with 90,000 people in 90 countries to measure global views on menstruation, according to Mashable, where they found that, “seventeen percent of participants globally have missed school, work or an event because they were afraid of someone finding out they were on their period.”
Furthermore, menstrual suppression, in relation to healthcare, was studied in 2003 by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals to find out how women and healthcare professionals view menstruation. The study found that, “71% of women* do not enjoy getting their period each month” and that “53% [of healthcare professionals] think menstruation is a significant cause of absence from work or school.” 75% of women thought that men have an advantage in not experiencing monthly periods, with 59% of medical professionals thinking the same. However, despite these findings, many individuals have reported that their menstrual pain often isn’t taken seriously by healthcare professionals.
Nonetheless, despite the greater need for recognition of the menstrual cycle and its challenges, access to sanitary napkins can be difficult. Across the globe, menstrual sanitation products may not been seen as necessary as other products. In homeless shelters, they may simply not be present in the United States as often as they should be. According to The Huffington Post, “tampons and sanitary pads usually top the list of needs at shelters, since they’re pricey and supporters don’t often donate them.” Miranda Lang, an American Studies student at American University told VocaLady Magazine that she observed such a disparity when volunteering with Thrive DC which serves individuals experiencing homelessness. Lang writes that, “they had limited supplies of feminine hygiene products compared to other products, like soap.”
Thus, combined with potentially crippling menstrual pain, stigma and lack of access that severely limit the mobility and ability of individuals menstruating, keeping them from school, work, family and proper healthcare.
Menstrual Equity: What We Can Do
Menstrual equity is about reducing this stigma surrounding menstruation and working towards allowing those who menstruate to do so freely and comfortably. With the passing of this bill in New York City, individuals in school, in shelters and in prison can experience their menstrual periods without fear of soiling their clothing or having to no longer take part in every day activities. Menstrual equity is a human issue and a right. It allows individuals who menstruate to participate without discrimination. It normalizes menstruation as a hygiene issue, marking menstrual hygiene products as a necessity similar to soap or toothpaste.
Lang, while taking an American Studies course entitled “Health in the Digital Age,” began a project to achieve just that after identifying the need to achieve menstrual equity. She founded Women for the Needs of Women, seeking to raise money and collect supplies in order to bridge the gap created when there isn’t access to sanitary napkins. Setting out to raise money to buy menstrual sanitary products, Lang ended up raising $3,400 and was able to donate over 3,000 feminine hygiene products to Thrive DC. This was a far-cry from her original goal of $200-300. She cites much of her success from social media, writing, “I conducted my fundraiser entirely online and by word of mouth. My friends and family shared my page dozens of times over, and individuals I hadn’t had contact with in years (and many I didn’t even know!) saw my page and generously made contributions.” Her project showed how access to sanitary napkins can mean empowerment and equality for those who need them.
Of course, more can be done. More cities can pass similar bills and the idea of “menstrual leave,” which is an interesting, yet divisive issue, can be explored more fully in order to weigh the benefits. Nonetheless, for now, NYC has taken a big step, one that many can learn from and many will benefit from.
Lang, too, is optimistic, writing to VocaLady Magazine, “I am ecstatic over the recent bill in New York City to provide free feminine hygiene products in public schools, prisons and shelters! This is a huge step towards true equality, and I applaud council member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland for her determination in making this bill a reality. I think this sentence from an article in the Washington Post sums it up well: ‘A young girl should not have to tell her teacher, to then tell her counselor, to then be sent to the nurse’s office, to then be given a pad to then go back to the bathroom while a boy is already taking his exam in his classroom.'”
*We use “women” here to refer to those who menstruate as that is the language of the study. However, we acknowledge that not all those who menstruate are women.