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New York City wants to provide free tampons to address menstruation stigma

City Council discusses benefits of providing free menstrual products to women and girls at schools, shelters, prisons

More research is needed to shed light on the economic cost of menstruation for poor women in the United States, where menstrual stigma has prevented some of the most vulnerable — especially homeless women — from accessing pads and tampons and inhibited others from speaking out about missing school or work, activists said Wednesday.

The call comes a week after the New York City Council gathered policymakers, social workers and activists to address the city’s limited access to menstrual supplies, saying it wants to propose legislation to decrease health risks, tackle the taboo surrounding menstruation and “further women’s equality.”

The proposals include scrapping a sales tax on feminine hygiene products by designating pads as essential non-luxury items and distributing free tampons in public schools. Other potential measures, according to a press release issued Friday by the City Council, include providing menstrual products to shelters for homeless women and increasing their supply in prisons, which often run low on the items and ration supplies.

Other groups present at the June 10 meeting — including Care for the Homeless, Planned Parenthood, Women's Prison Association and Food Bank for New York CIty — underscored the difficulties women and girls from low-income families face during menstruation.

Many girls were reported to miss school to avoid the embarrassment of staining their clothes, according to representatives at the meeting, or having to ask staff members for menstrual hygiene products.

New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who organized the roundtable, said her experience working with low-income youth in Queens familiarized her to the setbacks girls experience when affordable menstrual products are in short supply. 

“That is why we believe we need to have these products available for free in girls’ bathrooms in schools,” she told Al Jazeera.

Current policies for obtaining tampons or pads in schools force girls to request permission from a teacher to drop by the nurse’s office, where a student is required to mention the reason of her visit again — a double embarrassment many choose to avoid, Ferreras said.

“I just felt there was a shame associated with something that just says that you’re absolutely healthy. Celebrating that to me is why we need to remove the taboo,” she added.

Ferreras said she is drafting legislation and assessing the costs. She hopes to have the measures implemented by the end of this year. "The sooner we do this, the better."

Activists at last week’s meeting also called for urgent action.

“We have a very high demand for menstrual supplies,” Rachel Sabella, director of government relations at Food Bank for New York City, said in a press release. “Women will call us to find out if we have them available and they fly off the shelves when we do.”

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, deputy director of development for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, attended last week’s meeting. She applauded the city’s move, saying “there is no other city that has made menstrual health for low-income women a stated policy.”

She called for more research to understand the economic cost of the menstruation stigma. She says missing school or work is an experience too many women are forced to deal with.

“I would hope to see a cost-benefit analysis for low-wage workers that would demonstrate that the cost of providing these products would be outweighed by the savings incurred by not having to account for people who don’t come to work.”  

City council members also discussed the lack of menstrual products at women’s homeless shelters, in response to the growing number of women living on the streets — more than 3,340 this week, according to numbers from the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization.

The proposal to provide free tampons and other menstrual items to homeless women comes as donors grow increasingly aware of the problem. Donations of menstrual hygiene products at one of the city’s biggest shelters are up fivefold in the first half of this year compared to all of 2014, according to Care for the Homeless.

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