If you’ve been paying attention to a certain issue over the past few years, you will be familiar with conversations about menstrual stigma and the tampon tax. In 2015, Canada became the first country to axe the tampon tax, and other places like the UK, Australia and here in the US, women are campaigning for the same outcome.
Across America, it varies by state, as outlined by this helpful list created by Bustle. There are currently only 12 states which don’t have a special tampon tax. The rest categorize it as a “luxury” item, rather than a necessity like food or medical supplies, which is absolutely outrageous. Hands up all the women reading this who “chose” to menstruate as a luxury activity they thought might be cool to try out? Yeah, we didn’t think so…
But it’s not just the ridiculous tax that has many women annoyed, it is the way women in certain parts of society are discriminated against because of the culture of looking at these items as a “luxury”, or on the other end of the spectrum, gross. Now one legislator is working to change this conversation at a federal policy level. Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, recently introduced the first national bill aimed at tackling menstrual stigma in a meaningful way.
The Menstrual Equality for All Act of 2017 (H.R 972) includes five provisions to help different populations of women and girls better access menstrual hygiene items.
“Menstrual hygiene products are not ubiquitous and cheap, despite what popular culture would have us believe. Although most women use these products, many struggle to afford or access these essential items. This is unacceptable,” said a press release on her website.
“Menstrual hygiene products are a necessity for most women, yet they are treated as luxury items. It is definitely not a luxury to menstruate, and my legislation acknowledges this reality by making it easier for women and girls to access the products that their anatomy requires. I urge all of my colleagues – both male and female – to support this important bill.”
Women make up more than half the population of the United States, yet we are battling infuriating issues like this in 2017. We digress, but this is why we need MORE women in all levels of government to bring forward bills like this.
In many parts of the developing world, menstrual stigma is forced upon women in different ways. It is seen as something dirty and taboo, rather than a normal bodily function. In some cultures, young women don’t have the means to access hygiene products on a regular basis and resort to using rather unhealthy materials. In other instances, young women are forced to stay home from school or work, or refrain from being out in public or entering worship spaces every time they menstruate.
The stigma surrounding menstruation can also prevent women from obtaining important reproductive knowledge about their bodies which affects her ability to make informed decisions about child-bearing and sexual activity. When you add up all the time lost at school and work due to something that should not hinder a girl’s ability to go about her normal life, it can become a catalyst for lack of education and financial stability.
In the United States, discrimination exists not just in the way menstrual hygiene products are taxed, but how certain women access them. Congresswoman Meng’s office cited a 2011 survey where people listed these products among the 8 basic essential items which cannot be easily replaced (along with items like toothpaste, soap, toilet paper etc).
“It is estimated that up to 86% of women use tampons, up to 72% use pads, and 75% use panty liners. Most premenopausal women use menstrual hygiene products on a monthly basis, and the average woman will use 12,000 tampons in her lifetime. An average box of 36 tampons costs $7, so a woman will spend almost $2,500 over the course of her life on tampons alone. This does not include the cost of pads, panty liners, and other related products associated with menstruation,” said the press release.
Her bill addresses 5 key areas that could alleviate the burden felt by many women across America:
Allow individuals to buy menstrual hygiene products with money they contribute to their flexible spending accounts.
Provide a refundable tax credit to low-income individuals who regularly use menstrual hygiene products.
Allow grant funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter Grant Program, which can be used by homeless assistance providers for essential household items, to be used for menstrual hygiene products.
Require each state to provide menstrual hygiene products to female inmates and detainees, at no cost and on demand, as a condition of receiving funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.
Direct the Secretary of Labor to require employers with 100 or more employees to provide menstrual hygiene products to their employees free of charge.
Not too long ago, New York City made news by announcing it would be making pads and tampons available for free at women’s shelters, women’s prisons, and schools. Why isn’t this a “no-brainer” everywhere else? ESPECIALLY for women’s shelters and prisons.
In an op-ed for Marie Claire about her Menstrual Equality for All Act, the Congresswoman mentioned a couple of cases that had to be filed simply for incarcerated women to access hygiene products on a regular basis.
“The ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 8 female prisoners at Muskegon County Jail because (among other things) the prison denied inmates access to menstrual hygiene products, a condition considered inhumane and degrading. Female inmates in Connecticut only get five pads per week to split with their bunkmate, which means they may have to use a single pad for multiple days. I cannot imagine how humiliating that must feel. My bill would require each state to give female inmates and detainees as many tampons or pads as they need, whenever they need them—at no cost,” she wrote.
The humiliation around such a normal part of a woman’s life is also felt by homeless women.
“Some homeless women resort to using rags or…nothing. Congress should be outraged by these conditions. Shelters should be able to use federal grant money to purchase tampons or pads—that is exactly what my bill ensures,” she said.
The fact that women make up only 20% of our federal government gives you an indication of the level of outrage that will be felt throughout Congress (or lack thereof). So far the only legislators who have co-sponsored Congresswoman Meng’s bill are all Democrats (25 at the time of writing this piece), but last time we checked there are multiple Republican women in both the House and Senate (not to mention Republican men who no doubt have women and girls in their lives who are familiar with menstruation). It is appalling that this is not seen as a more pressing issue, and a basic need, for every elected official.
With the recent uproar over the Republican-led healthcare bill, dubbed “Trumpcare” or “Ryancare”, which will see millions of people lose their coverage by 2018, and Trump’s budget announcing cuts to the arts, Meals on Wheels, and children’s school lunch programs, while increasing spending for military and of course that darn border wall, it is clear our nation’s priorities, as dictated by a group of select men, are not in alignment with what the majority of people want.
We are seeing a rise in activists speaking out about this issue on a global scale, but it will take policy-makers taking action in order to see real change. Canada is proof that putting pressure on legislators works, so we will not stop talking about menstrual equality until Congresswoman Meng’s bill is passed. Right now the Menstrual Equality for All Act is before the House Ways and Means Committee, and is yet to be voted on. You can keep track of its movement on Congress.gov.