When you walk into a bathroom at school, you can typically expect to see soap, paper towels, and toilet paper. It would be weird if these things weren’t included. They’re necessities for bathroom hygiene. But so are period products. So, why aren’t these accessible to students as well?
According to a recent press release by Councilmember Brooke Pinto who is championing legislation to combat this challenge, access to period products is a challenge that, unfortunately, many students have to navigate. Nearly one in five students who menstruate have missed school because of a lack of access to period products. Overall, there is a lack of research on how the inability to access menstrual products affects students in Washington, DC. However, experts have found that lack of access to period products can be closely aligned with food insecurity, which would mean roughly 10.6% of residents have difficulty accessing menstrual products.
Data shows students’ access to period products can directly reduce school absences. A student’s ability to access menstrual products should not interfere with their learning, especially while navigating the pandemic which has only made it more difficult to attend school. Access to period products is just an additional barrier that prevents students from learning. This adversely affects students who menstruate and can prevent them from participating more broadly in society. Period equity is a key step in allowing all students to have an equitable learning experience.
The difficulty of accessing menstrual products is a systemic injustice with the burden falling disproportionately on young people of color and lower-income families. This bill can be a part of a solution to help overcome the challenges of accessing menstrual products.
The Expanding Student Access to Period Products Act of 2021 would drastically improve the lives of DC students experiencing challenges accessing period products. This bill would require DC public, charter, and private schools to provide products in all women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in middle and high schools and in at least one women’s and gender-neutral bathroom in elementary schools. It also requires UDC and private colleges and universities in DC to provide free period products in all women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms. If a school does not have a gender-neutral bathroom, they would be required to provide free period products in at least one men’s bathroom.
The conversation around menstruation is often exclusionary, framing it as solely a problem affecting women and girls. This framing is both harmful and inaccurate. Trans and gender non-conforming folks can face even more additional barriers to accessing products, including stigma and practical challenges, like a lack of sanitary bins or dispensers.
“This bill is a long-overdue step towards correcting these injustices. One day, I hope we can overcome the stigma surrounding menstruation and period products will be treated the same as toilet paper – a product everyone agrees is a basic necessity,” said Councilmember Brooke Pinto in a press release.
As a student at a DC university, I’ve seen firsthand how impactful this policy would be. Student organizers on my campus, George Washington University, took on the responsibility of providing access to these products for enrolled students. Their efforts were well received, but they only had the means to supply products to a handful of bathrooms. There was such a demand that the offerings only provided a limited, temporary solution to an ongoing need. It was not until September of 2021 after five years of student organizing, that the university took over this student-led initiative. While this has only been enacted for a few weeks, I’ve already noticed a difference in the number of products available. The student organizers on my campus were heroic and ambitious, but it was impossible to meet the demand for these products. Now, seeing the difference university intervention has made, only strengthens the idea that (1) there is a demand for these products, and (2), institutional intervention is directly benefiting students on my campus. All students in the District, and beyond, deserve this access.
No one denies the fact that toilet paper is a necessity. The lack of free menstrual products is a gendered issue and addressing this inequality is critical in achieving gender equality. Beyond access, menstrual education is also critical. The Expanding Student Access to Period Products Act of 2021 will not only make it easier for students to access products but also education.
Access is essential, but education is power. At a hearing for a previous version of the bill in 2020, many students testified that menstrual education is severely lacking in DC schools. What menstrual education exists is limited and not mentioned until grade nine, well after most people have already started menstruating. After this testimony, Councilmember Pinto reintroduced the bill this year with a new provision requiring the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to develop and implement comprehensive health education standards on menstruation designed for all students in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and District of Columbia Public Charter Schools (DCPCS), beginning in grade four and regardless of gender. Beyond access, it would require the OSSE to develop a poster with medically accurate information on the safe use and disposal of period products, which schools would be required to post near the period products dispenser.
“As students begin safely returning to schools, we must be committed to providing a more equitable learning environment for District students, and addressing period equity is key to this mission,” said Councilmember Pinto.
In some ways, DC is behind the curve with this type of policy. More than a dozen states, including Maryland and Virginia, have already introduced similar legislation to provide products in schools. This bill’s inclusion of comprehensive menstrual education for all students, however, would make DC a national leader with the strongest mandate to educate youth about menstrual health.
The next step in the legislative process for the Expanding Student Access to Period Products Act is for DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to schedule a public hearing for this bill. If you live in DC and believe all students should have access to the period products they need, please use this form to contact the Chairman and ask him to schedule a hearing.