In mid-April, World Bank announced an extraordinary $2.5 billion investment in support of global education projects that directly benefit adolescent girls. First lady Michelle Obama gave remarks at the World Bank Spring Meeting on April 13 and raised the myriad educational challenges girls face—issues she is tackling head on through her Let Girls Learn initiative. At a keynote address at the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, Obama announced the initiative’s second phase and an action plan to help the hundreds of millions of girls who struggle for the right to an education.
The first lady aims to take a transformative approach to what is an undeniably complex problem. Around the globe, girls face countless challenges to attending school from deep poverty to insidious practices like child marriage.
The one thing all those girls have in common is their periods.
As the first lady mentioned in her speech last week and through her public writing, including this article at The Atlantic, an inability to afford menstrual products can affect girls’ productivity in school. Factor in the embarrassment that many girls are made to feel about this normal biological process and periods can be a major disruption to their ability to achieve academically. No one should have to miss school, risk her health or compromise her dignity because of menstruation.
Providing free feminine hygiene products to students should be part of Michelle Obama’s and World Bank’s global action plan, and Let Girls Learn is just the vehicle to urge governments and schools to take action.
Though it’s a crisis that has long been documented in developing countries, as the first lady references, many don’t realize it’s also a problem closer to home. In the U.S., nearly one in five kids aged 12-17 live in poverty. At $7 to $10 a package, plus sales tax (in 40 states), a month’s supply of something as simple as a box of pads or tampons can be one expense too many for struggling families. And unlike toilet paper—which is ubiquitous in public restrooms, required by federal and municipal regulations and viewed as essential to everyday health and sanitation—girls living in poverty are typically left to access tampons and pads on their own.
Infrequent changing of tampons or pads is unhealthy, unsanitary and unsafe. Not using one at all is unthinkable. Reusable products like menstrual cups are a tough sell when school bathrooms lack privacy for proper washing and care. Without basic hygiene supplies, what is a student to do?
Let’s start with giving tampons and pads away for free in schools. It not only makes it easier for girls to manage their periods and focus their attention on classwork, but it signals to young women that their needs matter and that their period is an important part of being healthy—all things that contribute to a better learning experience.
There are already some bright spots when it comes to equalizing education. Recently, New York City introduced a comprehensive package of legislation that requires all of the city’s public schools, as well as homeless shelters and correctional facilities, to provide free feminine hygiene products.
Last fall, City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland piloted a program to install a single tampon and pad dispenser at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. The dispenser is a new venture, the brainchild of a national project called Free the Tampons. She received an overwhelmingly positive response—big enough to expand the program to 25 more schools across Queens and the Bronx. Increased attendance rates have already been reported at the inaugural pilot site, up from 90 percent to 92.4 percent in just six months. This may be only the beginning, but it’s a chance to further document what many already suspect: Supporting girls to properly care for their bodies during their periods supports their ability to learn.
If something as basic as an easy-to-access sanitary pad can keep girls engaged and productive in school, isn’t it worth the investment? As Council Member Ferreras-Copeland, who is also the chair of the finance committee and therefore manages the city’s $82 million budget, has stated, “No-one has ever interrogated me over the City’s toilet paper budget.”
In a large sense, the conversation around free sanitary supplies in schools is closely connected to high-profile campaigns to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax.” In the U.S., the Chicago City Council voted to eliminate the city tax on menstrual products, as have three state legislative bodies—the New York Assembly and Senate, and the Mississippi Senate—and bills have been introduced this session in a total of 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the United Kingdom, the European Union has scrapped the 5.5 percent Value Added Tax on these products, otherwise classified as a non-essential luxury item. Last year, Canada succeeded in eliminating its national Goods and Services Tax on sanitary products.
Activists and lawmakers are pushing for a conversation about a new idea—what we’ve called “menstrual equity”—by making the case that menstruation falls squarely at the intersection of health, economic and education policy.
That’s why providing free feminine hygiene products in school is one small but essential element of a broader global action plan, and why Michelle Obama should use her voice and vision to urge legislation to make this happen.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is a vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and a leading writer and advocate for menstrual equity policy. In partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine, she spearheaded the first national petition in the U.S. to eliminate the tampon tax.
Dasha Burns is a producer, writer and strategist. She regularly contributes to CNN and creates documentary films for global nonprofits. Her work straddles media, politics and policy, and global health and development.