If you’ve seen the latest ‘Orange Is The New Black’ season on Netflix, you will remember a minor story line regarding tampons and pads. Litchfield prison, since becoming privatized and accepting a gazillion more female inmates, started to run out of essential items, including pads and tampons. Refusing to stock more of them, the inmates starting using the menstrual items they had as a form of high value currency to trade for other items.
It was quite the funny story line in the show, containing some classic scenes from some of your favorite characters. But like many of the story lines featured in the current series, this actually reflected a real life issue. An article in the Guardian from 2015 exposed how many prisons around the US withhold giving female inmates an adequate amount of menstrual products not just for financial reasons, but also to humiliate them.
But prison is not the only place where tampons and pads need to be distributed. Given that half the population of the world is women, barring certain health problems and age factors, that is also half the population menstruating on a regular basis. When that fact start to becomes more common than the negative stigma often surrounding menstruation, it’s easy to see that menstrual products should be classed as a necessity, not a luxury.
There have been campaigns to eliminate the tax from many of these products around the country. There are currently 5 states which have managed to do this: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota. Earlier this year, 15 of the 40 states that still have a “tampon tax” moved to change it. Connecticut eliminated the tampon tax in its budget, effective 2018. Over in Canada, the entire country eliminated its “tampon tax” on July 1st, 2015. In the UK tampons are classified as non-essential products so women pay a 5% sales tax.
While New York State was awaiting a signature from the Governor so they could eliminate their menstrual products tax, New York City has taken it one step further and made menstrual history in the United States. It is the first city to enact a unanimously-backed law which allows free products to be distributed in schools, homeless shelters and prisons. Being dubbed the “menstrual equity law”, the city will budget for these items the same way they do soap and toilet paper. Ya know, necessities! Bravo Big Apple!
NYMag.com reports that tampons and pads were not previously covered by public-assistance programs, and some girls even stay home from school during menstruation. Zooming out of the United States for a quick second, around the developing world, menstrual stigma impacts young girls and women in such a negative way. It prevents them from participating in society and getting an education so they fall behind and have a higher chance of repeating cycles of poverty that affect so many women.
In India, one brilliant man risked divorce and being shunned by his conservative village because he was determined to find a sustainable and affordable solution to women not being able to obtain adequate menstrual hygiene products that didn’t involve dirty rags or unsanitary items. He has since become a local hero, dubbed “Menstrual Man”.
So for NYC to recognize that this is a problem sets a very progressive standard for the rest of the country to follow suit. The idea came about from a pilot program in Queens and the Bronx across 25 schools and will now be made available across the the city. Students can already obtain tampons and pads from their school’s nurses office, but this new legislation makes the products available in bathrooms of 800 schools in dispensers which will cost $3.7 million to set up initially and $1.9 million annually thereafter.
The Department of Citywide Administrative Services will serve up to 23,000 women at homeless shelters, at a cost of $540,000 annually which is estimated to include 2 million tampons and 3.5 million pads. In prisons, women currently have a ridiculously low ration of generic pads provided to them, and anything else they have to purchase through the commissary (like on OITNB). Under the new mandate, women will be able to request tampons, as well as pads, which must be provided to any woman who is in prison for longer than 48 hours.
New York City council member and finance chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is the prime sponsor of the bill for schools and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is the sponsor of the bills concerning shelters and corrections facilities. In passing this law, the legislature saw what an important step forward this was in preserving the dignity of women and girls.
“Providing menstrual hygiene products privately, immediately and for free is also about sending a body-positive message by not perpetuating shame and humiliation, and acknowledging that women’s bodies, even those of women serving time in prison, deserve some dignity during their periods,” said Council Member Julissa.
Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the legislation into law and tweeted his support of its impact:
The result of the many campaigns to raise awareness regarding menstrual stigma as well as eliminating taxes on menstrual products is being seen in laws like the one NYC has passed. It may seem trivial to some, but when it affects the daily lives of women and girls everywhere, it cannot be ignored.
In fact it has to be recognized as an important social issue in every aspect of our legislatures, including the very top. In January, President Obama was interviewed by Youtuber Ingrid Nilsen who asked him why 40 states still class tampons and pads as “luxury goods”. His response perfectly explained why there has been such a slow recognition for the need to change this, which you can watch below.
New York City has set the bar high, but not so high that other cities cannot follow and prioritize their budgets to better serve the women in their communities. Getting your period is not what any woman would consider a “luxurious” moment in each month. So we eagerly await a domino-effect of the “menstrual equity” law across the nation.