Last year sucked for all kinds of reasons, but it was a great year for period awareness and policy — and that’s a reason to celebrate. The efforts of menstrual advocates and female-friendly lawmakers have finally begun to pay off, and while these wins are by no means an excuse to rest on our laurels, some congratulations are definitely in order.
For one thing, access to basic hygiene products for incarcerated women has greatly improved in the past year — granted, we were basically starting from next to zero access, so any improvement was a great improvement. In August of 2017, the Bureau of Prisons required all federal penitentiaries to supply female inmates with a range of feminine hygiene products free of charge. Prior to the internal mandate, “the type of products provided was not consistent, and varied by institution,” explains the bureau’s spokesman Justin Long.
The shift in policy came after Democratic Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durben, and Kamala Harris introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in July, which included a host of policy reforms, including access to free tampons, pads, and liners. Since its introduction, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act has been referred to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary. If passed, it could bring forth other important changes to the way female inmates are treated, like banning shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women and expanding visitation policies for primary caregivers, for example.
On the state level, January 1st of this year marked the day that laws went into effect in Illinois and California that barred public schools from charging students for menstrual products. That means coin-operated dispensers won’t cut it anymore, as the products must be 100% free. In California, Assembly Bill No. 10 dictates that schools with “any combination of classes grade 6 to grade 12” that have a “40 percent pupil poverty threshold” will need to offer pads and tampons in half of all school restrooms, which will be reimbursed by the state. In Illinois, the law is even more sweeping; Public Act 100-0163 deems such products “a health care necessity” and requires that pads and tampons be made available in public school bathrooms for grades 6 through 12.
Keeping in line with the “health care necessity” philosophy, several states also lifted sales tax on tampons and pads. As of November 2017, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania abolished sales tax on things like tampons and pads (non-taxed menstrual items vary from state to state). You can add Oregon, Montana, Delaware, Alaska and New Hampshire to the list, but only because they didn’t have sales tax to begin with. For the remaining states, pads and tampons are still regarded as “luxury” items, which means all of the tax money associated with their cost goes back to the state. In 2016, California estimated it would lose $20 million in local and state revenue if it lifted the tax on menstrual products.
However, the battle for period parity is far from over, and the cost of menstrual products puts women living on a tight budget at a particular disadvantage, especially when you consider that the average woman uses 10,000 tampons throughout her life. Women living on food stamps, or SNAPs (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), still cannot use their benefits to buy non-food items, including feminine hygiene products.