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OPINION

This is what menstrual equity looks like

Massachusetts needs a comprehensive plan.

Nataliia/Adobe

Menstrual cycles have not stopped during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, period poverty — the inability to afford menstrual products — has increased as job insecurity, homelessness, and food insecurity continue to rise. There is a growing menstrual equity movement in the state to not only end period poverty but also to address menstruation education and stigma, and to ensure that people have access to health care resources, empowering a generation of unapologetic menstruators.

Throughout the pandemic, menstrual activists have been organizing mutual aid efforts to collect and distribute menstrual products. Leimary Llopiz, from YWCA Southeastern Massachusetts, has a menstrual product hotline and has distributed thousands of products in New Bedford and Fall River. In Springfield, Teiyna Thompson, founder of Pum Pum Powa, has organized menstrual product drives for Western Massachusetts. The Daring Divas Boston Girl Scouts Troop 82487 implemented the Menstrual Love project to administer a menstrual needs assessment survey and distribute period care packages. Dignity Matters, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that supplies menstrual products, bras, and underwear, has distributed over 2 million menstrual products in 2021 alone.

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In addition to ensuring access to menstrual products, Boston-based Love Your Menses is committed to breaking the period taboo and ensuring adolescents have healthy menstrual cycles, have equitable access to the resources they need for their reproductive health, and become agents of change in their communities. The new Our Flow app, designed by Black and brown youth in our social and technology innovation program, provides a fun and engaging platform to learn about the menstrual cycle and connect with other youths.

According to a 2019 survey by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women, more than half of school nurses said they assisted students who missed class so they could obtain menstrual products; 17 percent said they paid for tampons and pads for students with their own money. We don’t expect school nurses to purchase toilet paper for the school, why should we expect them to purchase menstrual products?

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Nearly 25 percent of homeless shelters surveyed in Mass NOW’s State of Menstrual Access Survey said they do not provide menstrual products, and 65 percent said the menstrual products that they do have are donated. Massachusetts should not leave the health and well-being of homeless menstruators to the whims of charity.

Massachusetts houses the oldest women’s prison in the country, meaning the state has had the longest time to figure out how to support imprisoned menstruators. And yet Mass NOW’s survey found that facilities in the Commonwealth supply menstrual products for free, but there is no uniform distribution plan.

Cambridge Public Schools started a menstrual access pilot program in 2016, and Somerville and Brookline school systems have since followed suit. Boston Public Schools has rolled out a similar program via school nurses but this, too, presents a barrier. No one should have to ask permission from a teacher to go to the nurse’s office; menstrual products should be accessible in the bathroom, just like toilet paper.

The state needs a comprehensive plan to address menstrual equity. It has such an opportunity with An Act Relative to Increase Access to Disposable Menstrual Products in Prisons, Homeless Shelters, and Public Schools (the I AM bill), introduced by Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representatives Christine Barber and Jay Livingstone. Mass NOW launched the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition in 2019 to bring together menstrual activists from around the state, and it has grown to over 200 participants and includes more than 70 organizations in support of the bill.

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No one should have to choose between food, a roof over their head, their education, and access to menstrual products. The Legislature should pass the I AM bill.

Bria Gadsden is cofounder and executive director of Love Your Menses. Sasha Goodfriend is executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women.