Skip to main content

Hawai‘i Students Fought For Free Menstrual Products In Schools & Won

When a transgender student bled through their pants and then was bullied by peers, teacher Sarah "Mili" Milianta-Laffin (Houston ’06) said students in the school’s activism club became determined to address period poverty in their school.

Three years after starting the process to end period poverty for students in Hawai'i, the students at ’Ilima Intermediate School, a middle school in Ewa Beach, Hawai'i, led the passage of legislation that makes period products free in all public and charter schools in the state.

Hawai‘i Students Fought For Free Menstrual Products In Schools & Won

When a transgender student bled through their pants and then was bullied by peers, teacher Sarah "Mili" Milianta-Laffin (Houston ’06) said students in the school’s activism club became determined to address period poverty in their school.

Three years after starting the process to end period poverty for students in Hawai'i, the students at ’Ilima Intermediate School, a middle school in Ewa Beach, Hawai'i, led the passage of legislation that makes period products free in all public and charter schools in the state.

June 22, 2022
Georgia Davis headshot

Georgia Davis

Associate Editor

When a transgender student bled through their pants and then was bullied by peers, teacher Sarah "Mili" Milianta-Laffin (Houston ‘06) said students in the school’s Activism Club became determined to address period poverty in their school.

Period poverty refers to the lack of access to menstrual hygiene education, sanitary products, and hygiene facilities. Simply put, many people cannot afford period products. It’s a problem that also translates into attendance issues with up to two-thirds of U.S. students surveyed in 2021 reporting they missed valuable school time because they didn’t have the period products they needed. In the Hawaii public school system, eight in 10 students have faced difficulties getting menstrual products, according to a survey conducted this school year.

A key goal of the period equity movement is to create an inclusive lexicon around menstruation. It’s not only women who menstruate. Menstruators include transgender, non-binary, and intersex individuals. Another goal is to normalize having a period to reduce the unwarranted shame associated with it. Acknowledging special challenges faced by transgender people who menstruate is also important, period poverty advocates say.

“In middle school, especially for trans students who may be experiencing gender dysphoria as they're going through puberty, it's very hard because this period could be a reminder of something that is not them,” said Milianta-Laffin, a STEM teacher at ʻIlima Intermediate School, a middle school in ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii. “Some of my strongest advocates have been the trans students saying we need these products now.”

Sarah "Mili" Milianta-Laffin (Houston ‘06)

Those students were eager to join forces with other menstruators to enact change. As soon as the bullying incident happened in 2019, the students in the Activism Club leapt into action. They started researching period poverty in Hawaii and around the nation and learned that other states had passed laws to make menstrual products free in schools. At ʻIlima Intermediate School, which serves many students from low-income households, students had to pay for period products at school—an expense that can hit some students hard.

“If you can't afford your school lunch, you probably can't afford a period product,” said Milianta-Laffin. 

Ultimately, the students worked with a state representative to present a bill for free menstrual products before the legislature. While the pandemic stalled their efforts, students were able to use that time to raise more awareness for period poverty. They partnered with the Ma’i Movement to highlight the toll of period poverty in Hawaii. “What we realized is we needed to educate the general public about why the issue was there to make them understand why it was critical,” Milianta-Laffin said.

Three years later, they testified at the state capitol to encourage legislators to pass SB 2821, a bill requiring all public and charter schools to provide menstrual products free of charge to students. In April, their hard work culminated with the votes needed to pass the bill, which was signed by Hawaii Governor David Ige on June 21.

Ahead of International Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, One Day spoke with Milianta-Laffin to discuss the lead up to the bill and the importance of students using their voice to push for solutions in their community.

What are some things your students learned when they were becoming civically engaged?

People always say, “Mili, it's so awesome that you gave your students a voice,” and I bristle at that. It’s meant from a good place, but I didn't give them anything. These kids came with a voice. I've just amplified it. When we walked in for the final legislative committee meeting at the capitol, I told them “This is your house. You are bringing an issue to your house and you are following what we're supposed to do in our educated democracy.” They’ve also learned the importance of standing up for others. I taught them the idea of taking space so that we can make space for others. They’re making space in the capitol for the 171,600 public school kids who need it. I always ask them when we go into the capitol “Who are you taking with you?” And so you'll hear them say, “I'm taking my sister, I'm taking my mother, I'm taking the kids who are going to get these products in the future.” They’re connecting it to the human stories that make up who we are and why we do this work, not just the cold, hard data.

Why do you think it’s important for students to become politically engaged?

I think it’s urgent for everyone to be civically engaged—and that our democracy depends on it. I think there's nothing more patriotic than public education in our country and the idea of carrying those civic tenets forward in that space. This has been something that's been in my heart as we've talked to lawmakers. Also, students deserve to be heard. So much about what happens to kids in public school happens without ever speaking to a kid. And that's super, super frustrating. Students are completely engaged. And they see that their voice matters, which is incredibly important given that so many of our communities have been systematically disempowered. And they examine things through the lens of power. And they see that voice has power, especially with collectivization.

Get more articles like this delivered to your inbox every month.

The monthly ‘One Day Today’ newsletter features our top stories, delivered straight to your in-box.

What's lost when students are not civically engaged?

If you don’t encourage students to be civically engaged, or stifle their ability to do so, you can’t get mad that teenagers aren't engaged and don't vote. And I'm so tired of hearing that Gen Z is lazy. With the internet savvy that they have, this is the most educated group of kids that I've encountered, especially when it comes to social justice. I don't understand why we don't register every kid in high school to vote. I think that shows we're afraid of an educated and politically active electorate. It's far easier to dissuade teenagers from getting involved than actually welcoming them into that involvement. 

Some of my students have gotten involved in pretty cool legislation here called Vote 16, a campaign to allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. We know when we introduce kids to academic subjects, like math and science, some of them get excited and go forward into a career in the fields of math and science. Why can't we introduce them to democracy too? I think our schools are perfect places for that. 

What led you to want to help students practice civic engagement?

Before I applied for the TFA corps about 15 years ago, I was actually at the Indiana Statehouse as an intern for a Democratic senator. One very cold day, there was a protest about cutting arts and humanities funding from the public schools. There were all of these very put together white people, who were against the funding, addressing legislators under the rotunda of the stained glass in the state Capitol. They were property taxpayers who didn't want their money to go to those public schools to do more art and community projects. Outside of the courthouse, you could hear music. So the other interns and I ran outside to see what was going on. The union had kids and families marching with their instruments, art projects, and paintbrushes. I remember just having that shell-shocked moment of like: The people who don't want to support these kids are inside and warm. All of these kids are outside, walking outside, and nobody's talking to them. 

It turned my identity on its axis. I realized I cared more about social justice than I cared about politics. I wanted to be one of those teachers walking those kids around the Capitol. I started that work after my two years in the corps. As an alum, I have been dedicated to elevating student voice and encouraging their participation in our democracy. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

We want to hear your opinions! To submit an idea for an Opinion piece or offer feedback on this story, visit our Suggestion Box.

Sign up to receive articles like this in your inbox!

Thanks for signing up!