Girls Can’t ‘Go with the Flow’ Until Schools Provide Sanitary Products
The women’s restrooms in my school each have two stalls that only occasionally drip from the ceiling. They have three sinks, at least two of which are usually functional. They have mirrors and paper towels and trash cans and practically all the amenities a bathroom needs. There’s just one product they lack: pads.
At first glance, this may seem like a relatively small problem. After all, a girl only gets her period once a month, right? But some back-of-the-envelope math proves this assumption wrong. Assuming the average menstrual cycle is 28 days and the average length of a period is 4 days, most women are menstruating about one-seventh of the time. In a school of over two thousand students, about half of whom are female, it’s reasonable to assume that around 140 people have the “girl flu” at any time.
Despite what many misinformed people (or, let’s be honest, men) seem to think, women can’t simply “hold it in” until they get to a restroom. Furthermore, it’s not always immediately obvious when your period has started, especially for girls just starting puberty who often don’t have a regular flow. Combine this with the lack of resources available in school bathrooms, and you get a nigh-universally shared experience: going to the bathroom; realizing it’s that time of the month; discovering you don’t have a pad; panicking about having to ask the male teacher to return to the bathroom, now with a conspicuous package tucked into your sleeves; panicking more about using the hall pass twice in a room full of adolescent boys; and eventually deciding to walk around with a thick wad of toilet paper in your pants until you can run to the nearest bathroom during the next class change.
In order to assuage any suspicions that I am just extraordinarily unprepared, and that everyone else has sanitary products on them at all times, I asked some fellow classmates if they could relate to my dilemma. Their responses were unsurprising. Grace, a sophomore at my school, commented, “Sometimes I don’t have a pad because my period is so off-kilter, and then I only notice it when I’m in the bathroom and I have to hike all the way back to class.” Amaya, a junior, added, “Also, people with heavier flows bleed through our backups on bad days, and we can’t always find a friend with a pad in time.” To get a pad, many students have to trek to the nurse’s office, which is, according to Sanaa, another sophomore, “humiliating, time consuming, and often unhygienic because you have to make the trip with toilet paper stuffed in your underwear. Also, we don’t have a full-time nurse.”
These complaints are representative of a broader trend: according to one study, almost one in five American girls have left school early or missed school entirely because they didn’t have access to period products.
For many girls, there simply never is a convenient time to start their period, because they are unable to purchase the necessary supplies.
That statistic brings up a more pressing problem. Beyond the unnecessary stress and humiliation that comes from getting one’s period at an inopportune time, for many girls, there simply never is a convenient time to start their period, because they are unable to purchase the necessary supplies. Although we often hear “period poverty” described as a global issue (which it certainly is — in many parts of the world, girls are forced to drop out of school entirely once they start menstruating), it’s easy to forget that people struggle to access these basic goods in our own communities, too.
Most estimates place the cost of an average period’s worth of sanitary napkins and tampons at around seven dollars per month. This price tag is raised by the existence of the “tampon tax”: since the government nonsensically considers period supplies as “luxuries” and not “medical expenses” (unlike sunscreen, cotton balls, and even foot rollers), these products are subject to payroll taxes and, at least in Kentucky, sales taxes as well. Although numerous attempts have been made to abolish this statewide tax, most recently in the latest legislative session, no progress has been made. Pads and tampons also cannot be paid for through most government-assistance programs, such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program) or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Although those seven dollars may seem inconsequential to those privileged enough to afford them, one survey found that nearly two-thirds of low-income women struggle to cover the cost of menstrual hygiene products, with nearly half saying they had been forced to choose between food and period products.
All those statistics point to a clear problem: young girls, especially those in need, often lack access to a product they desperately need. So why isn’t this pad paucity the subject of more discussion? Much of it comes down to stigma — the same discomfort that makes girls unwilling to ask male teachers to use the hall pass twice in a row can also go a long way towards explaining why women aren’t publicly protesting these irrational policies. Publicly addressing the topic of periods, when society deems it a private issue, creates a sense of vulnerability. In fact, even writing this article has made me uncomfortable. I’ve probably mentioned periods more in the last few paragraphs than I have in my entire life. Furthermore, a lack of sufficient health education leads those left uninformed to question why girls need access to sanitary products to begin with, making it difficult for men to ally with women in reducing the financial hardship that is period poverty.
The same discomfort that makes girls unwilling to ask male teachers to use the hall pass twice in a row can also go a long way towards explaining why women aren’t publicly protesting these irrational policies.
But we can’t wait for the stigma to disappear before taking action. There is an obvious and simple solution to this lack of access: install sanitary product dispensers. As Sofie, a Lexington junior, noted, “Pad dispensers save people a lot of trouble and embarrassment if they are unable to get a pad.” This wouldn’t necessarily have to require funding from the school itself, an indispensable advantage at a time when education budgets are tight. Beatrice, a student from Louisville, told me, “[Other schools have] created feminine hygiene baskets and put them in bathrooms at their school. When you needed a pad or tampon, you took one from the basket, and the hope was that you would bring one back whenever you could. That way, it was accessible whenever but was also practical.” Collaborative ideas like these make it simple to address this immense challenge, if we can muster sufficient initiative and momentum to implement them.
Our societal discomfiture surrounding menstruation will not disappear within the month, and girls can’t wait that long to be given easy access to an item so integral to their health and wellbeing. As crucial as soap or toilet paper, pads and tampons are a necessary hygiene product that schools could and should provide. Truly addressing period poverty in all its myriad forms requires long discussions about stigma and gender equality, yes — but in the meantime, please: just give us pads.
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Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.