Why menstrual equity is essential to educational equity

by Sonia Saini

In fifth grade, I was taught how to make a menstrual pad out of toilet paper in case I was not equipped to start my menstrual cycle.

The average age of first menstruation is twelve years old, although at least 30% of girls start menstruating before the age of twelve [1][2]. During the first few years of menstruation, irregular periods are extremely common[3]. For example, a student may start her second period 28 days after her first, but start her third period 40 days later. Menstruating students in primary and secondary school may subsequently experience unexpected disruptions to their education due to irregularities in menstruation.

Approximately 84% of menstruating students have missed class time or skipped school due to lack of access to essential hygiene products[4].

This inability of menstruating students to timely access menstrual hygiene products in school is a barrier for many students across Maryland. Students who unexpectedly begin their menstrual cycle at school may find themselves making a menstrual pad out of toilet paper, waiting in the restroom for a friend to drop off a pad or tampon, taking an extra trip to the nurse’s office to ask for a menstrual hygiene product, or simply leaking through their clothing. These extra steps are both disruptive and distracting. As a high school student, I can say I have experienced all four scenarios when starting my period at school. Unfortunately, most menstruating students have as well. But these are the necessary steps we are forced to take due to the combination of period irregularity as primary and secondary school-age students with a lack of menstrual hygiene products in schools across our state.

Public-school students in Maryland who are homeless currently have access to free menstrual products in the nurse’s offices if necessary, due to a menstrual equity bill passed in 2017. This is simply not enough. Most menstruating individuals change their menstrual pad every few hours, and their tampon at least every six hours. In an eight-hour school day, it is highly likely that a menstruating student will take multiple trips to the restroom in order to change their menstrual products. It is unreasonable to assume a student can go to the nurse’s office every time they need to change their menstrual product. The time it takes to walk from a classroom to the nurse’s office, then from the nurse’s office to the bathroom, then from the bathroom to the classroom disrupts the student’s education.

Asking permission from a teacher to visit the nurse’s office requires their signature, and the reason for your trip, all to be written on a hall pass. This often leads to uncomfortable, prying questions from teachers, that make many students feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. The procedure for visiting the nurse’s office for a menstrual hygiene product should not be the same as the procedure for an ill student. This relays to students that a natural body function is equivalent to an illness, further stigmatizing menstruation.

In 2019, 43.2% of public-school students in the State of Maryland who enrolled in free or reduced meals struggled to afford basic necessities[5]. Lack of access to menstrual products disproportionately impacts students of color from low income families, students who on average begin menstruating earlier than their white counterparts[6]. Combined with period stigma and a lack of comprehensive menstrual education, the start of menstruation can be an extremely confusing time for students. By failing to address the financial and emotional burdens endured by menstruating students, we are denying menstruating students the same rights to a rigorous education as their non-menstruating peers, which is a denial of equal education on the basis of sex.

This past January, HB0208 was introduced to the Maryland General Assembly which would require each public school in Maryland to provide their students with free, menstrual hygiene products in at least two restrooms per building by October, 2020, and in all bathrooms by August, 2024. New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, and California have all passed similar legislation requiring public schools students access to these products in school bathrooms.

I had the opportunity to testify alongside my peers in support of HB0208. To sit in front of the House Ways & Means Committee as a high school senior, and deliver testimony on legislation I strongly supported was an incredible experience. It was inspiring to hear other students speak in support of the same cause, and represent different perspectives of menstruating students.

We received questions from members of the committee after our testimony about the types of menstrual hygiene products students tend to use. I appreciate that the members took advantage of having public school students in front of them in order to gain a different perspective on HB0208.

As a senior in high school, I knew I would not experience the change, if implemented. However, I understand what it is like to continually worry about your menstrual cycle, have unreliable access to menstrual hygiene products, and suffer the unfortunately associated academic consequences. It was my hope that this was the beginning of the end of the common anxiety experienced by menstruating students.

Due to the pandemic and abrupt end to the legislative session, HB0208 did not pass. In the past two weeks alone, more than 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment. State agencies are dealing with almost 10 times the amount of unemployment claims that they experienced during the Great Recession[7]. Various organizations across Maryland are hosting food drives, and schools are providing disadvantaged students with devices so they can access any online schooling. More than ever, families across Maryland are struggling to afford basic necessities, including menstrual hygiene products. For many, their usually insignificant monthly purchase of a $10 box of pads matters now more than ever.

It is critical that the State of Maryland takes the necessary steps in the 2021 legislative session to recognize menstrual equity as a basic right. We need to pass legislation to ensure access to essential hygiene products in our schools so that fewer students will miss class time or full school days.

[1]“What Happens During the Typical 28-Day Menstrual Cycle?” Office on Women’s Health. https://www.womenshealth.gov/menstrual-cycle/your-menstrual-cycle

[2] Anderson, Sarah E., and Must, Ava. “Interpreting the Continued Decline in the Average Age at Menarche: Results from Two Nationally Representative Surveys of U.S. Girls Studied 10 Years Apart.” The Journal of Pediatrics, December 2005. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2005.07.016

[3] Miller, Robin R. MD. “Irregular Periods.” Teens Health, December 2018. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/irregular-periods.html

[4] “State of the Period.” Thinkx & Period. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/589df7bd6b8f5bcb04750e47/t/5db24b0b2b81d71f22358856/1571965707825/State-of-the-Period-white-paper_Thinx_PERIOD.pdf

[5] “Free and Reduced-Price Meal Statistics.” Maryland State Department of Education, 2019. http://marylandpublicschools.org/programs/pages/school-community-nutrition/freereducedpricemealstatistics.aspx .

[6] Salsberry, Pamela J, Patricia B Reagan, and Kathleen Pajer. “Growth Differences by Age of Menarche in African American and White Girls.” Nursing research. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2876306/ .

[7] Annelies Goger, Tracy Hadden Loh, and Caroline George. “Unemployment insurance is failing workers during COVID-19. Here’s how to strengthen it.” Brookings, April 6 2020 https://www.brookings.edu/research/unemployment-insurance-is-failing-workers-during-covid-19-heres-how-to-strengthen-it/

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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