How Schools Can Address Period Poverty

How Schools Can Address Period Poverty

How Schools Can Address Period Poverty

SoalSMA - How Schools Can Address Period Poverty - As a middle school teacher, Sarah Milinta-Laffin is undaunted by the occasional period disaster. 

But she remembers being bullied by a student who was bleeding on her clothes in the classroom and said "it's a natural and normal process." 

This is the reality for many students.  There are often feelings of shame or embarrassment and social consequences associated with menstruation.  On top of all this, some students experience "period poverty" - lack of access to menstrual products and education about their monthly cycle.

"Schools need to focus on destigmatizing periods by encouraging open discussion about periods and giving not just students who are menstruating, but all students the resources to understand what it is, how healthy it is, and how to manage it," says Megan Davis of Thinx, a New York-based feminine hygiene company. , Inc CEO wrote in an email. 

Understanding the time of poverty

23 percent of U.S. students will struggle to afford menstrual hygiene products nationwide in 2021, according to a study by Thinx and PERIOD, a youth-led nonprofit group focused on fighting contemporary poverty and stigma. 

This issue is particularly prevalent among low-income students and students of color.  Compared to 16 percent of teens surveyed, 23 percent of Hispanic students reported having to choose between purchasing menstrual products or food and clothing, according to the "State of the Period" report. 

The recent shortage of tampons and the lack of free access to menstrual products when schools were closed during the coronavirus outbreak exacerbated the problem. 

Instead of using pads or tampons, some students look for alternatives such as socks, leaves or paper folders, or even reuse one pad for their entire cycle, says Milianta-Lafin, who teaches at Hawaii's Ilima Middle School. 

The simple unavailability of menstrual products interrupts students' ability to learn.  About half of black and Hispanic students, for example, feel they can't do better in school because they don't have menstrual products, compared to 28% of white students, according to the study. 

"Oftentimes, schools say, 'We'll send the requested[period product]to the nurse's office,'" says Nancy Kramer, founder of Free the Tampons, a nonprofit that advocates for free access to menstrual products in every public restroom.  "And if you just think about it - a young girl is at school, she goes to the bathroom and finds out that she needs something. Then she has to ask permission to go to the nurse's office, go to the nurse's office, find what she needs and go back to the bathroom. This time How many episodes did she miss? 

How to reduce current poverty

Most students say they rarely or never have access to menstrual products in school bathrooms, according to the study.  So experts say this is a good place to start - stocking every school bathroom or health center with free menstrual supplies. 

"Tampons and pads should be treated like toilet paper, because really, they are just like toilet paper," Kramer says. 

Ame Abdul, national campaign manager at PERIOD, says the problem is not funding but what schools choose to prioritize.  "For example, when we fund the school's football team, but menstruating students can't even get some menstrual products, we have a real issue on our hands." 

Another aspect, say experts, is to implement comprehensive and holistic health education in the classroom.  More than 4 out of 5 teenagers believe that they learn more about the biology of frogs than the human female body in school, according to the survey. 

"We've got a huge educational gap that we need to move forward and fill," says Milianta-Laffin, who experienced internal bleeding after a student experienced her period after watching the Grey's Anatomy episode.  "As a teacher, those stories alone set you up for failure. Because in a world where access to information is at your fingertips, that shouldn't be the case." 

Efforts to expand education and free menstrual products

Some states, such as Alabama, Hawaii, New York, and Oregon, are making strides in making menstrual products available in schools and prioritizing period education. 

Milinta-Laffin and her students have spent three years lobbying lawmakers for menstrual equity in Hawaii.  Senate Bill 2821, signed into law in June 2022, now requires all public schools to provide menstrual products. 

Brooke and Breanna Bennett, 15-year-old students at Alabama's Montgomery Academy and founders of the nonprofit Women's Training Inc., have worked to do the same in Alabama.  In April, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill allocating $200,000 to eligible public schools — those that offer grades 5-12 and receive Title I funds — to distribute free time products.  But these products should be given by the school counselor, nurse or teacher instead of sitting in the bathroom.

"I think school districts should make it part of their fundraiser to put these products in the bathroom for menstruation," Brenna Bennett said.  "Schools do all these fundraisers. SGA and PTA, they can all get involved and raise money to help with menstruation and put permeation products in the bathroom. The government should fund schools to have these products in the bathroom." 

Last year, Oregon passed a similar law, except requiring all public school buildings to provide menstrual products in female and gender-neutral bathrooms.  According to Oregon Department of Education sex education specialist Sasha Grenier, students receive education about menstruation, which is included in the state's comprehensive sex education curriculum.

"It's all done in a really accessible and inclusive way so that all students have access to the products they need," she said.  "They can take care of their bodies and learn about their bodies (in positive) ways ... and not in fearful, but embarrassing ways." 

States like New York, which piloted a program to make menstrual products free in school bathrooms and eventually passed a law requiring it in 2018, have shown a positive impact on students.  During the pilot program, for example, participating public schools in New York City saw a 2.4 percent increase in enrollment, Kramer said. 

What can students and parents do?

If your school, district or state doesn't have any policies requiring the distribution of period products, advocate and start a conversation with administrators about menstruation, experts say. 

Parents should try to talk to their children whether they are menstruating or not, says Abdul. 

"If we can't talk about an issue, we can't talk about a solution," he says.  "So in order to talk about it, we have to break the stigma first. And that's about talking about menstruation and normalizing menstruation. Menstruation is an essential part of life and there's no reason why there should be such a big stigma around it."

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