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New Hampshire just became the fourth state to ensure bathrooms in public middle and high schools will offer free pads and tampons.
While menstruation is a natural bodily function, it often doesn’t feel that way in school. For young students, periods are often associated with stigma and shame, and can carry with them tough logistical questions when pads and tampons are too expensive to fit in a tight budget. As a result, there are many students who end up missing school when they get their periods.
But officials hope that is set to change in New Hampshire. Tampons and pads will now be free in all female and gender neutral restrooms in both public middle and high schools. New Hampshire is the fourth state to establish such a law.
"Providing menstrual hygiene products in public school restrooms is long overdue," said state Sen. Martha Hennessey, the primary sponsor of the bill, in an interview with CNN. "Cost and stigma can cause a lack of access to these products for New Hampshire students, which negatively impacts their productivity and attendance and makes it harder to focus on classes."
Nadya Okamoto, the founder of PERIOD, a youth-led nonprofit in Oregon that advocates for free menstrual products, said that without proper supplies, women often use “toilet paper, socks, grocery bags, and cardboard” as alternatives.
Okamoto founded PERIOD when she was 16, as her family was experiencing housing insecurity and she began speaking with homeless women about their strategies for dealing with periods while they were living on the streets. “I’ve been there with my family, when $10 a month can feel like a lot of money. That’s a couple meals,” she said. “But not being able to afford supplies makes a difference.”
The argument for putting free products in schools, Okamoto said, is not only about those who can’t afford them, but also about people who get their period unexpectedly. Having a ready supply spares students the embarrassment of having to tell a (frequently male) school authority that they need help. “By leaving these products out there for free, schools can decrease missed class time and reduce anxiety for students,” she said.
Though stigma is often a consideration in state legislatures who vote on these bills, much of the conversation still focuses on cost. In 2016, New York was the first state to pass legislation requiring schools to provide menstrual products for free in middle and high school bathrooms. When the law went into effect two years later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, tweeted that “menstrual products are as necessary as toilet paper and soap, but can be one expense too many for struggling families.” In 2017, Illinois passed nearly identical legislation, because, according to the law, “feminine hygiene products are a health care necessity and not an item that can be foregone or substituted easily.” California passed a more limited bill, also in 2017, that requires schools serving a high percentage of low-income students to provide free products.
Cities have also taken up the issue. Boston recently launched a $100,000 pilot program to provide free pads and tampons in its public schools. “Nearly one in five girls in the U.S. have left school early, or missed school all together because they didn't have access to menstrual products,” said Mayor Marty Walsh in a statement. “This pilot program is about equity in our schools, and among our young people.”
New Hampshire’s law, which goes into effect immediately, doesn’t come with funding, as Boston’s pilot does. Instead, it puts the burden of cost on schools districts, and suggests that “a school district may seek grants or partner with a nonprofit or community-based organization to fulfill this obligation.”
Michael Fournier, superintendent of the Bedford School District, did not seem concerned about the cost, however, and said that since his district has already developed its 2020 budget, they will likely use Health Office funds. But Dean Cascadden, superintendent of the Bow and Dunbarton School Districts noted that school districts receive most of their money from local property taxes, which mean some are better positioned than others to handle new state requirements.
“In the last decade, the [state] has been downshifting many costs to the local districts…[we are] one of the wealthier districts in [New Hampshire] so we will absorb this cost into our operating budget,” Cascadden said in an email. “This is just one of many examples of an unfunded mandate coming from the legislature...Some districts will really struggle with implementing this.”
Cascadden added that his district already provides menstrual products in nurses offices. “I personally do not see the need for the dispensers in the bathrooms because I felt our nurses offices are safe spaces for women to get products,” he said. “But I read some of the testimony and could see why this is a problem for some.”
Okamoto said that when her organization works with schools on the issue of funding, “administrators will bring up every barrier you can imagine” to avoid having to provide free products. But she said these conversations are important, because initiatives have to start at the school and district level before trying out legislation as a statewide requirement. PERIOD has successfully pushed twelve pieces of legislation this year, mostly at that school or city level, and is now using that momentum to urge state legislators to embrace these policies.
Working directly with schools also allows more young people to get involved in advocacy for their needs. Okamoto, who is now 21, said that she is a “firm believer in the power of young people to make change,” (she ran for city council as an 18-year-old) and knows that “young people have been less conditioned to societal stigma around periods” making them ideal menstrual activists.
But it’s also important to cast a wider net beyond young people, and especially, Okamoto said, to get men involved. “This is not just a women’s issue and if it’s treated as such we won’t get anywhere,” she said. “The majority of decision makers on these issues are still men, and they have to be comfortable standing up for this, to be unafraid to fight for a natural, normal thing.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.