Every weekday at a middle school near Atlanta, a half-dozen or so students visit the school nurse to get sanitary pads.
Their reasons vary: Their mothers don’t provide them; they don’t have the money; they forgot to bring them; their friends need them.
“It’s every issue that can be named,” said Linda Espinosa, a nurse at Freedom Middle School in Dekalb County, a school where all students receive free or subsidized meals.
The issue of affordable access to menstrual products is not limited to Georgia. In other states and countries around the world, advocates are working to ensure that girls and women are getting affordable access to feminine hygiene products in public schools and other institutions, such as homeless shelters and prisons.
In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a memo in 2017 mandating that feminine hygiene products be available to all female inmates in federal institutions at no cost.
In New York City, the government provides free menstrual products in public schools, jails, and homeless shelters. And in some states, either the legislature has mandated free menstrual products for prison inmates or the corrections departments have offered to do so on their own.
Ten U.S. states have eliminated the sales tax on menstrual products, while India and Canada have eliminated the tax nationwide. Georgia’s corrections department provides unlimited menstrual products to inmates but the state still charges a sales tax on these items.
There is definitely a need for more funding for menstrual products in the state’s public schools, said Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent for external affairs at Georgia’s Department of Education.
State Democratic Rep. Debbie Buckner of Junction City proposed a bill this year to eliminate Georgia’s state tax on menstrual products. Buckner noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines menstrual products as medical devices, others of which — diabetic test strips and insulin devices, for example — receive tax exemptions under Georgia law.
The estimated $9 million in lost tax revenue from Buckner’s bill would have had little effect on the budget. The measure failed to make it out of committee by a critical legislative deadline, however, and shows little promise of passing this year. A similar proposal failed last session.
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, second in command in the Georgia House and one of the highest-ranking elected Republican women in the state, has argued that eliminating the tax for all consumers of menstrual products wouldn’t make a meaningful difference for those who can’t afford the products to begin with.
But she thanked advocates of the bill for bringing the issue of affordability to her attention.
Jones has proposed a targeted grant program that would allot $1 million to the state’s Department of Education and at least another $500,000 to county health departments to supply menstrual products, with the amount being adjusted in the future if necessary.
The House has already approved a budget allocating $500,000 each for these programs. The Senate has not yet matched that amount, but Jones remains hopeful the final budget will set aside $1 million for schools.
Claire Cox and Adele Stewart, co-founders of Georgia STOMP, the main women’s group behind the proposal to eliminate the state sales tax on menstrual products, were disappointed Buckner’s bill didn’t pass. But they said they’re grateful for money going toward schools in need.
Until some action takes effect, the task of providing menstrual products in Georgia public schools where low-income students may not be able to afford them falls to private donors, civic groups and school employees such as Espinosa.
She gets help from a Procter & Gamble program that donates menstrual products to schools. But she noted about half of those supplies are tampons, which she said most middle-school girls can’t use.
Espinosa said she ends up paying about $20 out of her own pocket monthly because there’s no budget for sanitary pads or other supplies for her small clinic. She said some of the students “come in every day.”
Freedom Middle School counselor Tijuana Williams said she has a hunch the girls aren’t just supplying themselves but also “trying to help somebody else at home.”
Periods can often lead to shame and distraction for young students, said Marni Sommer, a Columbia professor who has researched the issue internationally and is exploring how low-income girls in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York experience their periods.
Sommer said access to sanitary products is only one of the challenges they face; they also deal with the embarrassment of having to ask for them and leaving class to do so.
At Stewart Middle School, in Douglas County, Georgia, staff buy and keep menstrual products in the front office, said principal Donita Cullen. A civic engagement group also has supplied bags with three pads and panty liners that are placed in classrooms as a more discreet way to provide products.
“Sometimes it can be embarrassing to come to the front office multiple times a day,” Cullen said.
“As the adults in the building, sometimes we forget what it’s like to be an 11- or 12-year-old.”