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The U.S. And Equitable Access To Menstruation Products


On Tuesday, Scotland became the first country to guarantee that feminine hygiene products will be made freely available to anybody who needs them. The news was celebrated by activists who have argued for years that these essential products are too expensive and too difficult for many women and girls to access. So that got us thinking about what things are like here in the U.S., especially since the coronavirus pandemic has thrown many people's budgets and schedules into chaos.

So we called Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. She is the co-founder of Period Equity. That is an organization founded to ensure accessible, affordable and safe menstruation products in this country. She's with us now. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, thank you so much for joining us today.

JENNIFER WEISS-WOLF: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So I just think that for many people who haven't spent any time thinking about this, they might think about this as a personal issue. But you argue that it should be a matter of public policy, also. So for people who aren't familiar with this discussion, just what exactly are you and advocates calling for? What is the problem that you think needs to be addressed?

WEISS-WOLF: We've kind of created this frame and phrase for it called menstrual equity. And, really, what that is all about is ensuring equitable access to menstrual products such that nobody is actually held back from participating in daily life, succeeding in all of the things that, you know, matter to all of us - whether it's going to school, going to work - on account of menstruation and inability to afford menstrual products.

MARTIN: So what are some of the issues here in the United States that you think people need to think more about? I mean, first of all, let's say taxes. Are sales taxes imposed on these feminine hygiene products? Can you buy feminine hygiene products with food stamps, for example, with SNAP benefits if you are of very low income? What are some of the things that are particular to the United States that you think people may not know?

WEISS-WOLF: So you asked about sales taxes. And that's been a pretty live campaign here in the United States for many years, where, right now, there are - 30 of the 50 states actually don't exempt menstrual products from sales tax. Twenty of them do, and 10 of those the result of a very coordinated campaign going back about five years now to demand that legislatures do better and exempt menstrual products from sales tax.

You asked about SNAP and WIC. Neither of those programs include menstrual products as part of their - you know, the things that you're able to purchase with those benefits. So there are many, many ways that these products prove unaffordable and inaccessible for many people but that we could use and leverage public policy to change that. Again, fighting for the tampon tax, as it's publicly called, is one of those ways. But there have been other legislative advances, too, that quite frankly mirror what happened in Scotland this past week, where six states have mandated provision of menstrual products in their schools, and 13 states have mandated provision of menstrual products for people who are incarcerated.

MARTIN: OK. But before we let you go, we will soon have a new administration. What are two suggestions for what you think this incoming administration could do to make people's lives easier, who, as I said - you know? Half the population at some point in their lives needs these products.

WEISS-WOLF: OK. So some of the specifics, actually, that they can do are included in this live legislation called the Menstrual Equity For All Act. So among those provisions, there could be an earned income tax credit for low-income people who need to purchase menstrual products. There is a provision that would require states that accept federal funding for their criminal justice systems to provide menstrual products in state prisons in order to receive those federal funds. Those are some examples of how federal levers can be pulled to ensure that states and citizens on the ground have access to more affordable menstrual products.

MARTIN: But what about people who aren't in prison? I mean, what about people who work these long hours, don't necessarily have breaks or maybe they have the same break that a man would have but they don't need to do the same thing on their break that a man would - you know? - that what women need to do to take care of themselves is different on a break. Is there something that the government could do to make that less challenging?

WEISS-WOLF: I think that just government and the federal government, in particular, talking about, embracing, acknowledging menstruation in and of itself will spur states and other jurisdictions to take action. I mean, and that's kind of how this has worked here in the United States. It's been a bit of a two-way street. There are some things that are better dealt with at the local and state level. There are some things that - there are federal levers that can be pulled that will nudge us towards change but actually really aren't the cure-all because that's, again, not necessarily how our systems work.

But there's an echo chamber that we can call to ensure that everybody - and especially our lawmakers - are speaking about menstruation and the economics of menstruation and the health of menstruation and the idea that people who exist in the workplace, in schools, in our economy are people who menstruate and that we can't be silent about it because we're all - we all need to be called upon to be part of sort of the creative thought process about how to make the changes that will improve people's lives, especially when it comes to menstruation.

MARTIN: That was Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. She's co-founder of the group Period Equity, and she's author of "Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand For Menstrual Equity." Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, thank you so much for joining us today.

WEISS-WOLF: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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