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How New York Is Easing Access to Menstrual Hygiene Products

The city is the first to pass legislation mandating free tampons and pads in public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons.

Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland speaks about New York City's legislation on the steps of City Hall. (Eillie Anzilotti/CityLab)

NEW YORK, N.Y. —“Tampon!” “Sanitary napkin!” “Panty liner!” “Period!”

The words rang out from the steps of City Hall. Just a few years ago, it was rare to hear them spoken in public. Now, they’re being written into law.

With the signing of a bundle of legislation mandating that pads and tampons be freely available to hundreds of thousands of women in public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons, New York became the first city in the nation to guarantee access to menstrual hygiene products.

“New York is not just acknowledging that menstruation is part of people’s experience,” says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, who has been instrumental in bringing this issue to the attention of the city government. “It’s zeroing in on the people—public school students, homeless or incarcerated women—for whom it’s most difficult to manage.”

The laws passed on June 21; in October, the city will install dispensers in 800 public schools, supply $540,000 worth of pads and tampons annually to the city’s shelters, and institute more oversight in prisons to ensure that the system’s pre-existing policy of providing supplies to menstruating women is implemented in a way that meets demand. Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who took on the task of spearheading the legislation after meeting with Weiss-Wolf to discuss policy solutions last March, says that she initially faced some pushback: people were concerned about the cost.

“People were saying: ‘Why don’t you just give away free cars while you’re at it?’” Ferreras-Copeland told the crowd at City Hall. But Ferreras-Copeland is also the chair of the city’s finance committee. New York is working with a budget of $82.1 billion; after the one-time cost of installing the dispensers in schools, the legislation bundle will cost the city no more than a couple million dollars a year. “Nobody wonders how much the city spends on toilet paper,” Ferreras-Copeland says. The menstrual equity legislation, she adds, aims to bring hygiene products to the same level of necessity.

It’s a revolutionary concept, particularly because in most states, pads and tampons are taxed as luxury items. “No woman ever said getting a period was a luxury,” Ferreras-Copeland says. Over the past year, various legislators at the state and federal level have taken the “tampon tax” to task; in an editorial for The New York Times, Weiss-Wolf noted that:

In the United States this year, fifteen of the 40 states that still have a “tampon tax” moved to change it. Illinois and New York State both passed laws that now await their respective governor’s signature; Connecticut eliminated the tampon tax in its budget, effective 2018. Just last week, the American Medical Association released a statement urging states to exempt menstrual products from sales tax.

Eliminating the sales tax on tampons and pads, Ferreras-Copeland says, addresses one element of the financial gap women acutely feel in cities like New York: female employees are paid 79 cents to men’s dollar, yet often face higher prices for services like dry cleaning and basic items like shampoo and hygiene products. Yet for the 23,000 women in the city’s shelter systems, as well as female inmates and many public high school students, the issue of the tax on tampons and pads pales in comparison to the need for improved access to these products, which can cost women more than $100 annually.  

Speaking in front of City Hall, Rachel Sabella, the director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City, said that when the donation centers receive hygiene products, they fly off the shelves; volunteers often resort to opening boxes of tampons and rationing them out to stretch the supply. The provision of 2 million tampons and 3.5 million sanitary pads through the new law, she said, will go a long way toward alleviating a concern of an in-need population.

And Lineyah Mitchell, a graduating senior at Brooklyn Technical High School, spoke about the need for greater access for students. “In a school of 6,000 kids, there’s only one nurse,” she said. Getting permission to visit the nurse to pick up products, then going to the restroom, takes away classroom time from students—tipping the scales subtly away from gender equity in academic settings. The city ran a pilot program at a high school in Corona, Queens over the past year; attendance rates, Weiss-Wolf says, are already trending up.    

When Weiss-Wolf first brought the issue of menstrual equity to the attention of Ferreras-Copeland and the New York City government last year, her ideas to implement specific policies addressing access had largely been dismissed. But through Ferreras-Copeland’s leadership, a legislative solution came into focus in just over a year. “It has been lightning speed for the democratic process,” Weiss-Wolf says. “It’s proof that it works.”

And it’s proof of the simplicity and the efficacy of the policies. Apart from budgetary concerns, the bills have received very little pushback. The need for a city to treat menstrual hygiene on par with necessities like bathroom soap and toilet paper is “the kind of thing thing that once you think about, you realize there are so many easy and creative ways to address it,” Weiss-Wolf says. “It’s not about giving away free stuff: it’s about ensuring our citizenry is as high-functioning and productive in society as they can be.”

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