SNAP and WIC don't pay for tampons and pads. But a bill introduced in the state legislature, which began its 2022 session Tuesday, might put free sanitary products in all K-12 public schools.
After Renewing Dignity was featured on the local news, the in-box for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based nonprofit, which distributes period products, was flooded with emails like this one from an anonymous mom who confessed that being unable to buy sanitary products had plunged her into depression.
“I simply stayed home and avoided everyone, and doing that only made the depression worse,” Anonymous Mom said in her email. “There were times I literally scraped together pennies to get those types of personal care products for my daughters as they hit puberty. I would sink into depression because my thought process was, If I can't even afford these items, I'm not much of a person. I'm not doing a good job. I'm not worthy.”
Many women tell similar stories. A 2019 study found that two-thirds of women surveyed couldn’t afford period products, and 46 percent of those women often had to choose between purchasing tampons/pads or buying food. More than one in five women experience this need every month. And the burden often falls more heavily on Black and Latina populations. A 2021 study by U of Kotex, a feminine hygiene brand manufactured by Kimberly-Clark, found that nearly a quarter of Black and Latina women who have their periods said they’d had a difficult time affording period products in the past year. Complicating matters is that public assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), don’t cover menstrual products, and women who are caught trading or selling food stamps to pay for pads or tampons are at risk for prosecution.
Here in Florida, one in six women and girls 12-44 live below the federal poverty line, and 60 percent of families in poverty struggle to keep up with bills and expenses, like period products, according to the advocacy organization Alliance for Period Supplies, which distributes supplies to communities throughout the U.S.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, knows firsthand the toll such inaccessibility can take on one’s mental health. “My mom passed away when I was 13 years old and before my period started,” she said in an interview. “I had to navigate the experience of menstruation by myself, and there were many months where I did not have clear access to period products. I had to use toilet paper or paper towels as an alternative, which not only didn’t work, but it was also really embarrassing.”
That’s a big reason why she supports the Learning With Dignity bill (SB248), which was filed in September by state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Broward County. The bill would require public school districts to make free sanitary products available in the health facilities in all K-12 schools. If passed, it would go into effect July 1.
Book filed a similar bill in 2020, which would have made period products available in girls restrooms in K-12 schools, so that menstruating students would not have to ask for products. That bill died in committee.
“The [Learning With Dignity] bill hasn’t moved yet, but we are actively recruiting co-sponsors and hope to see some traction on it,” said Eskamani who co-sponsored HB175, the companion bill, in the House.
Since 2017, five states have passed laws that require public schools to provide free period products for students. They include: California, Illinois, New York, New Hampshire, and Virginia.
Florida’s 60-day legislative session began Tuesday.
THE COST TO MENSTRUATE
Health experts recommend that women change pads and tampons every four to eight hours to avoid leaks and prevent a build-up of bacteria that can cause odor and even infections.
The costs of those products add up.
The average woman spends about $13.25 a month on period supplies, according to a recent survey. Given that that average woman starts her period around age 12 and enters menopause at 51or 52, that’s about 480 periods. At $13.25 a month, women can spend $6,360 over their lifetimes for period supplies, noted the survey.
In 2020, with the pandemic straining already-stressed household finances as people lost jobs and budget chain stores closed, demand for menstrual products shot up 35 percent by the summer, according to the nonprofit I Support the Girls, which distributes supplies to those in need.
In Ocoee, Sharon Lyles, director of the Central Florida Diaper Bank, which serves mothers from Orlando to Kissimmee, estimates that she’s been giving out about 7,500 pads and liners a month since March 2021. Each mom who asks, receives 50 pads and/or liners.
When women and teenage girls can’t afford the necessary products, they can end up bleeding on themselves, bleeding through their clothes and staining furniture where they sleep and sit — all of which cause deep embarrassment and shame. To avoid the situation, many girls and women often stay home from school or work, and opt out of extracurricular or social activities. A 2019 study State of the Period by Thinx and PERIOD found that more than four in five students (84%) in the U.S. had either missed class or knew someone who had missed class because they didn’t have a tampon or a pad. Missing four days of school each month, a girl can miss out on between 10 percent to 20 percent of her academic learning, according to the World Bank.
One way to handle a shortage is to ration supply so what you have lasts longer. In fact, 61 percent of women and girls wear pads longer or leave tampons in longer than four to eight hours. That can lead to over-saturation and leakage and increase risk for yeast or urinary tract infections and Toxic Shock Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition from a bacterial infection.
“The lack of period supplies can be unhealthy for people who use products for longer periods of time than recommended and/or turn to using substitute products such as socks, rags, toilet tissue and newspaper, all of which may cause severe infections,” Jennifer Gaines, program director of Alliance for Period Supplies, said in an interview.
That’s precisely what happened to Anonymous Mom who emailed Renewing Dignity. “There were numerous times I went without and suffered a few infections,” she wrote. She added that she eventually developed sepsis — the body’s extreme reaction to infection — something she only learned after she passed out and her daughter called an ambulance. “Having access to feminine hygiene products would have eliminated the need for me to go to the hospital, much less be hospitalized and fighting for my life.
Scotland provides free period products to any woman who needs them. England and New Zealand ensures students have access to free period products. Wales provides free period products in schools and to those in need in communities throughout the country.
The U.S. lags behind other first world nations in providing for its citizens who menstruate. However, “menstrual equity” and “free the tampon” movements are gaining in popularity, and the ship is starting to turn. According to Women’s Voices for the Earth, there are more than 140 bills in 37 states, including Book’s Florida bill, that aim to improve access to period products through various ways, such as by eliminating sales taxes, allowing public benefits to pay for them, and making products available in schools, prisons, homeless shelters, government buildings and park and government building restrooms.
"You've never heard any talk about the free toilet paper or government-funded toilet paper. The logic is it's a necessity for people whose bodies menstruate, like you have a paper towel to dry your hands. We put this in the same category," Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, co-founder of the legal advocacy organization PeriodEquity and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, told USA Today. ”We all benefit if everyone’s functioning optimally, at their best level. It's to all of our detriment if our fellow citizen is bleeding down their leg on the street next to us.”
Florida eliminated its so-called “tampon tax” in 2018 — one of 20 states to do so. In 2019, incarcerated women won the right to have period supplies in prison after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. If SB 248 is passed, it could alleviate some financial anxiety for girls and their families.
But the bill’s effects would extend far beyond money. “Struggling with period poverty also affects mental and emotional well-being,” Eskamani explained. “Talking about periods has been a taboo subject for too long. A lack of period products can increase stigma and cause people living in poverty to suffer in silence.
“The more conversations we have about our periods, the more courage we give to those who need help to ask for it,” Eskamani said.
Gaines encourages anyone concerned about period poverty to become an advocate themselves. “Supporting the advancement of legislation related to menstrual health, equity, and access to period products at the local, state and national levels helps to implement laws and policies that support free period products in schools and public spaces,” she said. This could include restrooms in community parks, libraries, train stations, city- and county-owned buildings.
“In order to end period poverty we need to collectively take a stand and address the issue head on,'' said Gaines.
HOW TO HELP
Hosting a period products drive, then donating the items to the Central Florida Diaper Bank is a great way to help. CFDB collects SEALED packages of pads, liners, tampons and menstrual cups. For more information, contact Sharon Lyles at email@example.com.
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