Students across the country push for 'menstrual equity' laws
(Photo by Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images)
Ayla Belsby persuaded her high school in Washington state to provide free, easily accessible menstrual products to students. All schools in Washington will follow suit at the beginning of the coming school year, when a law takes effect requiring them to make no-cost menstrual products available to students, regardless of gender identity.
Menstrual equity is emerging as a critical issue across the country. Advocates point to products as a basic hygiene need, like toilet paper and soap, to which students who menstruate need easy access during the school day. Washington was the sixth state to enact a comprehensive law requiring free products in schools and at least five more states and the District of Columbia followed with similar legislation as of July 18. Some laws cover high school only; others cover grades down to fourth or up through college.
Several states allow but don’t require schools to provide products or require them only in schools serving low-income students. Some laws specifically address the needs of menstruating individuals who don’t identify as female — for instance, by requiring products in gender-neutral bathrooms. In states where legislation on period products has failed, cost is the usual rationale.
The issue goes well beyond schools. Bills introduced in 37 states last year addressed product access for people who are homeless or incarcerated, taxes on menstrual products, and product safety. Congressed passed two laws on the issue: they require free menstrual products in federal prisons and allow products to be purchased with pre-tax dollars from Health Savings Accounts or Flexible Spending Accounts. Representative Grace Meng of New York introduced a comprehensive bill, the U.S. Menstrual Equity for All Act, which hasn’t moved.
Belsby’s project at Liberty Bell High School arose from a civic action assignment. She was inspired by a video she’d seen about how homeless people improvised when they didn’t have menstrual products, using materials such as socks or fallen leaves. “It was kind of horrifying as a young girl entering this stage of my life,” she recalled. "It was a shocking thing and a wake-up call for me.”
Belsby and her friends had experience with school product dispensers that “never worked,” she said. "It turns out that they weren’t being filled.” She recognized “a serious necessity that isn't being met and that is definitely going to impact people's education and ability to concentrate and learn and feel comfortable and safe in the school environment.”
Students lose out when they cannot readily obtain or afford menstrual products. In a small survey in a St. Louis, Missouri, district, published in 2020, almost half the students said they’d been unable to afford products at least once during the previous year, and 17% had missed at least one day of school due to lack of products. A larger study published in 2019 found that 12.7% of students had missed school, 15% had arrived late, and nearly 24% had left early because they could not obtain products. The study concluded that a school’s failure to provide menstrual health products hurts student learning.
The problem has grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2019 survey showed that 20% of teens had struggled to afford, or been unable to afford, period products. The rate increased to 23% in 2021. A much higher percentage of Black and Latino students said they believed the problem impaired their school performance, compared with their white peers.
When Belsby approached her school’s principal and nurse, both immediately saw the value of providing free products in school restrooms.
“I thought it was a fabulous idea,” said principal Crosby Carpenter. “Unfortunately [I hadn’t] given it enough thought to realize that that could be a barrier to kids not only attending school, but just being able to participate in an equitable fashion.” Nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said Belsby “really brought a subject to the forefront that we all need to discuss.”
Menstruation has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy and considered an embarrassment, making it difficult for students to seek information and support. Belsby’s project includes informational posters so students know how to use products properly. She also made sure the products are available in restrooms, rather than only in the school office or health room, so students gain agency and lose less class time getting what they need.
Carpenter supported the approach. “You never want to be in a position where you have staff as the gatekeepers … especially as it relates to something that could be a barrier to a student being in class and engaging in learning with their peers,” the principal said.
Whether providing free products in school boosts school attendance or academic performance isn’t yet clear. A New York City pilot program showed a small increase in attendance after free products became available, but most districts have not provided them long enough for the benefits to be documented. Belsby said she’s received “a lot of positive feedback from people who appreciated having the information and the products … I think it's clearly beneficial.”
Washington State’s new law was sponsored by Representative April Berg, who said her daughters brought the issue to her attention. To demonstrate support, the teens launched an Instagram poll that confirmed students want free products in schools. Student testimony was key to the bill’s success. Berg said she could see both male and female colleagues having “aha moments” as they recognized “that impact of not having what you need when you need it.”
The use of substitutes when menstrual products are lacking can lead to infection, sometimes with long-term health consequences, even if people don’t resort to socks or leaves. People may use a pad or tampon for longer than intended, risking potentially deadly toxic shock syndrome. Concerns about not having products when they’re needed or the lack of understanding of menstruation can affect mental health. Shame and anxiety may be magnified in people who do not identify as female.
As she advocated for period products, Ayla Belsby said she was “reminded of my ability as a citizen.” Across the country, people who menstruate and other advocates are using that ability to drive change and support healthier and more equitable systems, within and outside of schools.