The Internet couldn’t stop gushing over the Royal Wedding this weekend – no detail too small, no romantic gaze too adorable, for commentary. And yet, perhaps the most remarkably radical gesture garnered only limited attention: the couple’s request for menstrual pads in lieu of gifts. In particular, for donations to the Myna Mahila Foundation in India, which manufactures and sells affordable pads throughout the slums of Mumbai, tackling taboo and shame along the way.
On International Women’s Day 2017, Meghan Markle penned an essay for Time about the global need to address menstruation as a matter of gender equity. She wrote: “From sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education.”
But period poverty, as it’s been dubbed, also takes its toll on low-income women right here in the United States, too.
Activists and policymakers have begun to address this plight in the name of menstrual equity – arguing that in order to have a fully equitable and participatory society, our laws must guarantee menstrual hygiene protocols and products that are safe and available for all who need them.
Overall, momentum for this agenda is strong. Reforms are gaining traction, from states seeking to eradicate the sales tax on menstrual supplies (a.k.a. the tampon tax), to those moving to require the provision of products in schools, as California, Illinois, and New York have done this year.
Progress has been especially heartening with regard to the growing population of incarcerated women and girls in America. Indeed, managing menstruation behind bars poses unique challenges. Not only are periods prohibitively expensive – in part, due to price gouging of tampons by commissaries – but often a monthly source of humiliation, even abuse.
Among the scathing testimonies: In Virginia, a woman shared that she was forced to display her used pads to guards before being given a fresh one. Others report punishment for having hoarded, rationed or bartered for menstrual products. Without them, women are left with no choice but to bleed on themselves. Restrictions on laundry further undermine health and dignity.
In 2016, New York City passed the first slate of laws requiring freely accessible tampons and pads in its correction facilities (shelters and public schools, too). Colorado followed in 2017, mandating funding in its budget for tampons in state prisons; that year, Los Angeles County did the same in its juvenile detention centers.
Most recently, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a new law – becoming the first state to mandate that all of its prisons and local jails provide free menstrual products. And still several more bills are in motion this session, including in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey.
And now, even Capitol Hill is taking a stand. First, after the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced in July 2017 by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, the Department of Justice issued a guidance that tampons and pads be freely provided in all federal correctional facilities.
It will possibly have more teeth soon. This week the House will vote on federal prison reform legislation, the FIRST STEP Act, that prominently includes a menstrual access provision. The President has assured Congress he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Despite the perpetual gridlock of our politics, it is notable that menstrual equity has emerged as a distinctly bipartisan cause. The latest polling research by the Justice Action Network shows that 90% of voters are in favor of providing free menstrual products in prisons, with robust support among Republicans (85%), Independents (91%) and Democrats (94%) alike.
But what is perhaps most remarkable about this proliferation of new laws is the deeper acknowledgment that tackling the availability of tampons and pads isn’t simply a matter of budget lines and purchasing orders. Rather, it has everything to do with addressing the inherent power imbalance and rampant indignities to which women – particularly those who are incarcerated and most marginalized – are subject. And recognizing that the ability to manage menstruation falls squarely at the intersection of health, economic, and justice policy.
As we strive for true dignity and justice for all, there will no doubt be issues — like periods — that are uncomfortable to discuss. Kudos to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for using their platform to help break the barrier of stigma and shame.
But if we hope to achieve more fair and equal society, we must also recognize the need for systemic solutions. Starting with policies to mandate the provision of menstrual products – in the correctional setting, in schools, among all in need. Menstrual equity is a meaningful intervention we must all prioritize.
Piper Perabo is an actor and activist.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is author ofPeriods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity (Arcade, Oct. 2017) and a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth (Macmillan, May 2018). She is a vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
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