As a female high school student at St. Michael-Albertville, I experience firsthand the educational and economic consequences of having a menstrual cycle. My period causes me to miss school, leave class for extended periods of time, and lose focus during class.
When students don’t have menstrual products at school, their focus shifts. If I forget to bring menstrual products, I spend a significant amount of time searching for tampons and pads, or, I have to leave school for the day.
This is an issue for many menstruators at my school, so I tried to convince my school board in 2020 to provide students with free menstrual products. They refused. I personally acquired a grant to fund the effort. Every week, I or a member of my Women’s Advocacy Club restock the bathrooms. However, when the grant runs out at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, so will our product supply.
Through my work on the governor’s Young Women’s Cabinet, I have come across many problems that need to be addressed. However, there is one issue that is detrimental to the education of menstruating students across Minnesota, yet is rarely discussed: a lack of access to menstrual products.
Schools provide a variety of hygiene products at no cost to students: toilet paper, soap, paper towels, etc. However, menstrual products are rarely on that list. Menstruators are expected to have those products on hand, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their non-menstruating counterparts.
These products come at a high cost. In the course of a year, a menstrator buys $150-$300 worth of product. If they’re not accessible, menstruators in need often resort to alternative methods (toilet paper, rags, paper towels, etc.), or, ration their supply by using the same menstrual product over an extended period of time instead of replacing it regularly. This can lead to adverse health effects such as fatal toxic shock syndrome or vaginosis, which are caused by harmful bacteria.
Nearly twenty-five percent of U.S. students say they struggle to access period products. Many feel the stigma surrounding menstruation has inhibited the availability of menstrual products in schools. One in five students have difficulty accessing or affording sanitary products, which is called period poverty, and 16 percent buy sanitary products in place of food and clothing.
For people of color, this problem is acute. The data shows that menstruators of color are more likely to have trouble paying for period supplies. Students of color experience period poverty at higher rates than white students. Sanitary products are a necessity–not a luxury–but are an essential product many students struggle to afford. This creates a barrier to education.
In a national survey, of 1,000 menstruating teens, 4 in 5 either missed class or knew someone who missed class because they did not have access to period products. If you don’t have access to sanitary products, attending class can be extremely challenging. Menstruators also experience mental stress that comes with lack of access: We worry about bleeding through our clothes, and we fear the bullying, harassment, and public humiliation of an accident.
In a study of attendance and grades, we see that increased absences coincide with lower grades. Menstrual product inaccessibility can stand in the way of our education.
As a state, we must establish free sanitary product access for students, especially in areas where we see the greatest disparities. This simple step will help menstruators access the products they need and decrease the education barriers in our state.
Right now, crucial legislation on this issue is being considered in Minnesota. The Minnesota Menstrual Equity Bill (Senate File 3052 and House File 2750) would provide free menstrual products for students in grades 4 through 12. Public and charter schools would receive funding from the state to fulfill the initiative.
The effort would cost $2 per student, which is just $2 million–a miniscule amount compared to the state’s $9 billion surplus. To close the educational barrier for menstruators, the Minnesota Legislature must pass this bill.
Minnesota has one of the top education systems in the country. But when you look at the data, educational and economic barriers exist for menstruating students. We desperately need change and a solution. Without free access to menstrual products, Minnesotans like me will continue to be at a disadvantage.
I encourage every Minnesotan who cares about education equity to call or email your state representatives and senators about this bill, or to sign our petition. By taking these crucial steps, you are making our beloved state an equitable place for all students.