My expectations for school restrooms are relatively low. I attend a large public high school where clogged sinks and overflowing trash bins are the norm. Still, even worse than the condition of the restrooms is the near-lack of menstrual hygiene products, which has impacted me as a young woman. When I see that toilet paper, hand soap, and paper towels are available and are provided to students free of cost, I wonder why menstrual products aren’t too.
Currently, in the United States, only three states—California, Illinois, and New York— require schools serving students in grades six through twelve to provide menstrual products in women’s restrooms for free. Millions of girls around the country are therefore forced to bring these products from home and face discomfort and lost educational time when they must leave class with their entire backpack to go to the restroom, or have to ask the school nurse or a friend for one when they don’t have any. Menstrual products are largely viewed as luxuries rather than the necessities they truly are, and this is an issue that must be acted upon.
Many individuals are unaware of the fact that period poverty in the United States is real. Often viewed as an issue faced primarily by individuals in developing countries, many are shocked to learn that nearly one in five American girls have either left school early or missed school entirely due to a lack of access to menstrual products. The “tampon tax,” a tax on menstrual products that currently exists in 36 states, further aggravates the issue, and in a country where nearly 14 percent of girls and women live below the poverty line compared to just 11 percent of boys and men, it is crucial for menstrual equity to exist.
Recognizing that challenges regarding access to menstrual products persist, students in some schools have attempted to take action to ensure that pads and tampons are available in all women’s restrooms. After receiving funds from my school last year to redecorate and “renovate” one of the women’s restrooms, members of my high school’s Women’s Club used a large portion of the money to purchase menstrual products that were stored in plastic containers in the restrooms. Although this has been helpful, it hasn’t proven to be a reliable solution to the problem. Products haven’t been restocked this school year due to lack of funding, and even last year when menstrual products were supplied by the club, they ran out in just a couple of days and it was a few more days before containers were refilled.
The reality is that when students don’t have constant, reliable access to menstrual products at school, they are forced to ask the school nurse or their friends. Most school nurses only have a limited supply of menstrual products, and while they are happy to provide them to students occasionally, they are unable to supply them to students on a regular basis. Many students also feel a sense of discomfort when asking other students for menstrual products and telling them about their period. Some students may even feel that it is best to just stay home when they are on their period because they don’t have proper access to menstrual products at school, which is unfortunate. Having easy and reliable access to these products in school restrooms is essential.
Additionally, at some schools in my city, including mine, sanitary pad and tampon dispensers are currently only available in restrooms that are at centralized locations in the school, such as the commons. Therefore, some students find it difficult to access these restrooms during class time. “Students can’t leave their academic wing with a bathroom pass and go to the commons…what are you going to tell the male security guard in the academic wing you’re in? I have to go to the commons to get a tampon?” says Ava Kaminski, 16, a student at neighboring public high school. Having menstrual products and dispensers available in restrooms is critical for students to stay in school and feel safe and comfortable. Furthermore, expanding access to menstrual products to gender neutral restrooms would benefit an even larger number of students.
Many individuals also believe that while teen leaders are important, they should not be the only ones ensuring that their fellow classmates are able to access these products in schools; schools and district administrators must recognize the critical nature of the issue and work to allocate funds for menstrual products and dispensers. “School would go a lot smoother if these products were available to students. Students should be able to focus on their classes and education and not have to worry about if they remembered to bring pads to school,” says Noelle Livingston, 17. A group of student leaders at my school are currently working with school administrators to receive funding for menstrual products and dispensers for all the women’s restrooms, something many are looking forward to.
In a society where women are taught to hide their period, working to end menstrual stigma is very important to achieve menstrual equity. Many students agree that menstrual health is often glazed over and inadequately addressed in their middle school and high school health education classes. Creating a welcoming, trusting, and open environment is the first step to effectively educating both girls and boys on this topic and the stigma that currently surrounds it. When students can learn from one another through thoughtful and meaningful conversation, it is possible to form a collaborative community that is capable of creating change.
It’s time for everyone to realize that menstrual products are necessities, not luxuries, and that periods should be embraced, not feared.
Shruti Sathish is currently a senior in high school and lives in Madison, WI.