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The bloody truth about period poverty at school

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

If you menstruate (or know someone who does) you know what tampons and pads are. If you use the women’s bathrooms at school, you know that these menstrual products are available in dispensers and cost 25 cents.

Now, imagine that you’re walking to your first class of the day, and . . . your period starts. If you didn’t bring any menstrual products with you, what do you do?

Are you willing to go to the bathroom and show up late to class?

What if you can’t afford the products in the bathroom dispensers?

What if you don’t even use the women’s bathroom?

At this point, you have several options: ask a friend (and hope that they have the right amount, variety, and size of product for your needs). Or face the embarrassment of asking a teacher or the school nurse for free products (but you might not have been informed that this is an option). Maybe you risk a serious infection by making an improvised product, such as stuffing a sock with loose paper. Or maybe you spend the rest of the day nauseous, in pain, and covered in your own blood.

This sounds like nothing short of torture -- a system where you can never win, and every option has a downside. Some may believe that this condition, known as “period poverty,” only affects those in developing countries, but its effects are rampant across the globe. According to “State of the Period,” a 2019 survey by Harris Poll of 1,000 US teens, “over one in five [menstruating] teens in the United States have struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all. More than 4 in 5 students (84%) in the United States have either missed class time, or know someone who missed class time, because they did not have access to period products.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “California already prohibits public schools from charging students for menstrual products. State law also requires schools with low-income students to provide free feminine hygiene products to [students] in grades 6-12.” Apparently, students in Los Angeles have always had access to free menstrual products via the nurse’s office, so why is period poverty still an issue?

The answer lies in age-old stigmas surrounding menstruation that persist to this very day. Many ancient cultures linked menstruation to supernatural powers, as a way to rationalize and control phenomena that they did not understand. Some of these mythological explanations were empowering, like the Romans’ belief that menstruating people could impede the path of storms or remove pests from fields. But others attributed negative abilities to people on their periods, including the potential to spoil food, blight crops, brighten the sun, dull weapons, dim mirrors, and even produce unviable children.

No matter if these myths were positive or negative, they gave leaders cause to dictate the lives of menstruating people. Whether these rules were for the comfort of menstruating people (like Islam excusing women from fasting for Ramadan, or Buddhism allowing them not to bow), or for the comfort of society (like the Hindu belief that people menstruate as a way to bear the sins of the deity Indra), they contributed to the continuing idea that menstruation is an anomaly, something to hide, something to control.

Since the creation of these myths, as a society, we have gained a greater understanding of the world and of ourselves. The cause and various effects of menstruation are now (mostly) common knowledge, and amount to nothing supernatural. However, the fear and stigma that these tales created linger.

Consider this: from an early age, you probably learned why you bleed when you get cut and where that blood comes from. But it may not have been until your early teens that you learned what a period is. What this boils down to is that centuries ago, it was logical to revere and even fear the fact that half of the population can spend twenty-five percent of their lives bleeding without dying; but even though we know what periods are, we continue to fear the mere mention of the word.

Today, this looks like confusing messaging in schools, and continued shame on the part of students when trying to access sanitary supplies. In an article by Story Hinckley, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, Lorena Bascara, a school nurse who has worked in California for over ten years, states: “If the student is in a group, and too embarrassed to ask for a tampon or pad outright, [...] they use secret code phrases, such as ‘Can I have a cookie?’” Some teachers and school staff will even stock their classrooms with tampons and pads, paying for them out-of-pocket, because they know that some students will choose to seek assistance from an adult they know well, instead of the nurse or another student.

Fortunately, work is being done to ensure that students in LAUSD have easier access to free menstrual products if, and when, they need them.

Since 2015, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia has been trying to make it easier for Californians to access sanitary supplies. In 2018, she attempted to repeal California’s sales tax on menstrual products, but the bill was shot down, its opponents citing the fact that it could cost the state $10.5 million annually.

“There is already a ridiculous tax on menstruation products,” says Metzli Esparza, an ERHS student. “We didn’t ask to have periods,” she says. “It’s absolutely crazy how pads and tampons and other sanitary products are taxed as luxury items. Since when is having a period a luxury?”

In 2017, Assemblymember Garcia successfully passed bill AB 10, which requires all Title 1-eligible public schools in California to provide free sanitary products to students in grades 6-12. At Eagle Rock High School, students can go to the Health Office for free sanitary supplies, and, according to ERHS School Nurse Ms. De Leon, there is currently a project underway to put free dispensers in school bathrooms at LAUSD. “There used to be a 25 cent charge years ago,” says Ms. De Leon, “but we've done away with that.”

The problem, however, is that this message hasn’t gotten through to all students. Metzli, being one such student, oftentimes does not have the necessary change on hand, and when she does, “there isn’t even anything in the [dispensers], and if there were, it wouldn’t matter because they are jammed and don’t even work. I know many others that have had that exact same problem.”

Though free dispensers will be a huge step forward in making menstrual products more available, we still have a long way to go. As of now, in California school districts, free sanitary products are only mandatorily available at schools that serve students in grades six and above, and which qualify for Title 1 funding, allowing many menstruating students to fall through the cracks. For example, some get their period as early as the age of eight, and not all who are unable to afford menstrual supplies attend schools that qualify for Title 1. Additionally, providing tampons and pads in the nurse’s office does not eliminate the societal ridicule faced by those who can’t afford products and those who are not female-identifying. As the L.A. Times states, “‘Sanitary products are vital for the health, well-being and full participation of women and girls — and transgender and nonbinary people who menstruate — in our society.’”

Regarding LAUSD, Metzli Esparza provides an alternative to simply giving products to students via the Health Office. She suggests placing a box full of tampons and pads outside of both bathrooms so that any student who needs a menstrual product could grab one, regardless of which bathroom they use. Providing pads and tampons out in the open would also help to normalize the use of menstrual products (and being unable to afford them), and would eliminate the spectacle of asking a teacher or the school nurse for one.

It is possible to end period poverty by making menstrual products free for all who need them, but we must first tackle our society’s discomfort with periods that makes the topic so difficult.

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