Since menstruation hygiene products have existed, they have been costly and highly taxed. The price of bleeding—a natural bodily function— has been historically too high. But one city has started to do something about it.
On June 21, the City Council of New York City passed a bill that will provide tampons and pads to public schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. This bill is the beginning of legislation that reflects the fact that menstruation hygiene products are a necessity. Finally, we don’t have to pay for the way we are made.
City councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland introduced the bill in March, which was unanimously agreed upon in a 49–0 vote. The bill won’t go into effect until Mayor Bill de Blasio signs it into law, but his signature is likely, based on past comments from his administration. The passing of this bill marks a monumental moment for menstruating people everywhere.
This bill could be the precedent needed to begin a statewide, nationwide, and worldwide movement for access to menstruation hygiene products. By providing access to schools, prisons, and shelters, the city has tapped into the population that needs access to these products the most.
Currently, there are 45 million Americans living below the poverty line. The majority of those people are women who, therefore, do not have the means to afford these hygiene products. Even more upsetting is that almost 1.5 million people in the U.S. used homeless shelters in 2014, while half a million were recorded as without shelter entirely. This is a huge problem within itself, but this also means that any menstruating person included in these numbers does not have access to the proper care needed for their period.
The New York City school system is the largest and most diverse in the nation, and this law will positively affect hundreds of thousands of its students. Many of them come from immigrant families, and 78 percent of those qualify for reduced-price or free lunches. How did we expect families to afford tampons and pads for their children when they cannot afford their lunches?
Before the city-wide program was proposed, New York’s City Council passed a pilot program—also proposed by Ferreras-Copeland—which distributed free tampons and pads in 25 low-income schools in the Bronx and Queens. The result? Many bleeding adolescents heaved a sigh of relief. Those who couldn’t afford those hygiene products previously had to go the nurse’s office for them, sometimes resulting in missed classes or tardiness. Meanwhile, there’s a general feeling of embarrassment when a young teen must explain to their teachers that they were late or absent due to their period. Low access to menstruation hygiene products also contributed to missing extracurricular and after school activities, oftentimes crucial for growth and success.
In prisons and shelters, the experience is much worse. In New York City prisons and prisons nationwide, there is a low cap of pads given to each inmate. If they want to buy more, they must spend much of their low prison wages on buying more, which are usually spent on products such as toothpaste and deodorant. For decades, we’ve been forcing bleeding inmates to choose between hygiene products and denying the necessity of proper period care. While people in prisons may have to use just one pad for an entire cycle, menstruation hygiene products are scarce in shelters as well.
These are not small issues or comfort concerns. These are health risks, as poor period hygiene is highly linked to infection and even cervical cancer. This is a serious, global health issue, but this bill is one step in the right direction. But remember, this is only one city. A city of 8 million, but one city nonetheless, and this needs to be a law everywhere.
This bill is the first of its kind, but not the first push towards reducing the unjust cost of periods. Across the country and the world, there has been a call to eliminate the tax on menstrual hygiene products, because, simply put, getting your period is no luxury. Only five out of the fifty states have successfully eliminated the so-called “tampon tax”: Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New York is still awaiting the signature of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to eradicate the tax.
California assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, who supports the repeal of her state’s tampon tax, said that she had multiple men approach her saying that they were waiting for a woman to carry the issue. This only proves the large scale of period stigmatization. Even the mere site of a tampon induces discomfort in many non-menstruating people, contributing to the lack of access to these health necessities.
President Obama, in a segment mentioning the importance of national access to menstruation products, gave a possible reason why these taxes even exist: “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.” It’s not that non-bleeding people (namely cis men for the most part) don’t care about these issues, but perhaps the stigmatization of periods throughout time has taught them to ignore it. For the safety of over half the world’s population, the stigma around periods has to end end.