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America’s Very Real Menstrual Crisis

5 minute read
Weiss-Wolf is a contributor to 50 YEARS OF Ms. THE BEST OF THE PATHFINDING MAGAZINE THAT IGNITED A REVOLUTION out on Sept. 19, 2023. She serves as executive director of NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center

After his raucous display at last week’s Republican debate, Donald Trump lashed out at Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly for questioning the litany of sexist insults he’s hurled over the years. His conclusion: she’s got “blood coming out of her wherever.”

Period jokes are a dime a dozen, Donald. Half of the American electorate – indeed, half the world’s population – copes with menstruation. Feminine products are a $2 billion industry in the United States alone. But for those who live in poverty, lack of access to menstrual health care is more than a punch line.

The price of poor menstrual hygiene can be devastating, even deadly. It is linked to high rates of cervical cancer in India; in developing countries, infections caused by use of filthy, unwashed rags are rampant. Here at home, women who are homeless or incarcerated face similar risks when they can’t access or afford sanitary products. Women have even been known to trade food stamps for tampons.

Around the globe, there is growing awareness of, and demand for solutions to, the financial burden of menstruation. The United Nations has declared menstrual hygiene a public-health, gender-equality and human rights issue, inspiring waves of global activism and innovation. In the United States the crisis has hidden in plain sight.

A social media-savvy generation is raising awareness and taking action. An enterprising team of graduate students at the University of Georgia devised a prize-winning initiative to donate hygiene products to Athens-area shelters. A pair of New Jersey teens launched Girls Helping Girls. Period., a community collection drive. And this year’s selfie craze #JustATampon – which originated in England and quickly went viral – has helped raise awareness around tampon taxes.

Creative charity and clever hashtags are part of the solution, no doubt. But they must not be a substitute for meaningful domestic policy reform.

Sales tax reform, especially, has captured headlines. New York and Ohio are among the 40 states that currently impose sales tax on menstrual supplies; legislation to axe the “tampon tax” has been introduced in both states. Activists in California are gearing up for similar advocacy in 2016. Will the remaining 37 states follow?

Meanwhile, our neighbors in Canada led a successful No Tax On Tampons campaign this year, eliminating the national Goods and Services Tax on tampons, pads, and menstrual cups as of July 1st. Across the pond and down under, activists in the United Kingdom and Australia are pressuring their governments to do the same.

The sales tax question speaks directly to the dire need for sound menstrual policy, access and education. Who possibly could have decided that tampons are not a necessity? Certainly not anyone who has ever had a period. Upon further examination of the kinds of items that are sometimes not taxed by states – a bag of M&Ms, a latte, even yachts and luxury jets – it becomes ever harder to justify. And while the cost savings of a sales tax break may sound meager at eight cents on the dollar, for those struggling to put food on the table, every penny counts.

On the policy front, New York City is breaking new ground. In June, City Council Member Julissa Ferrares convened the City’s first-ever roundtable on menstrual health. A diverse array of community leaders – including advocates for the homeless, the hungry, incarcerated women, and low-income students and families, along with reproductive health providers – came together to help inform policies to improve access. Among these: free tampons and pads for public school students (mirroring a program that makes condoms available for free), as well as at homeless shelters, food banks, job centers and public benefits offices; drugstore discounts for holders of IDNYC, the City’s free ID card; and a push to eliminate the New York State sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

At the federal level, simple but meaningful change also can be achieved – for example, by amending the IRS Tax Code so that menstrual products are eligible for Flexible Spending Account allowances. We should also re-examine the scope of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program and expand these to include feminine hygiene items.

Relatedly, passage of the Robin Danielson Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Carolyn Maloney and named for a woman who died of Toxic Shock Syndrome, is long overdue. The bill would require resources for independent research into the potential hazards posed by the synthetic fibers and chemicals used in the production of tampons. Says Maloney: “American women spend well over $2 billion per year on feminine hygiene products, and the average woman will use over 16,800 tampons and pads over the course of her lifetime. Despite this large investment and high usage, there has been limited research on the potential health risks these products may pose to women.”

Menstrual hygiene and health affects anyone who is a woman or who knows a woman. It matters to all of us. It is time we fight for a domestic policy agenda that is smarter than Donald Trump’s period jokes – and as clever and effective as the latest hashtag campaign. I’m calling this one our #monthlymotivation.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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