Period Equity Is Expanding Nationwide, Often Thanks to Young Leaders
Students who can’t afford or readily access menstrual supplies can miss days of school as a result. A Teach For America alumna talks about her quest to end shame around periods and ensure menstrual supplies are available to all students.
When the nation’s most populous state joined the movement against period poverty last year, Damaris Pereda (D.C. Region ’09) had to take a moment to appreciate the journey. After 13 years of buying menstrual supplies for those in need and raising awareness about menstrual health, her home state of California now requires public schools and colleges to provide free period products.
Pereda knows firsthand just how hard advocates worked to get a menstrual equity bill passed there. The weeks leading up to the governor’s signing of California’s bill, AB 367, last year were frantic, involving a flood of letters, testimonies, and tweetstorms to ensure the bill that Pereda, students, and a coalition of organizations had worked on would actually become law. Together with youth in California and around the globe, Pereda and the team she works with at PERIOD. are on a mission to end period poverty—the limited or inadequate access to menstrual products or menstrual health education or the negative stigma around menstruation.
“This was about my niece, my little cousins, and all of my friends’ children who menstruate,” said Pereda, PERIOD.’s national programs director who now lives in Portland, Oregon. “I couldn’t believe we were so close to ensuring that all the young menstruators in the state of California would have free access to menstrual products in their school restrooms—as readily accessible as toilet paper.”
On Oct. 8, 2021—the eve of the bill’s expiration and just before national Period Action Day—Pereda saw the news of the governor’s signature on the bill, which affects public schools with grades six through 12, community colleges, and the California State University system campuses. There were tears and laughter, she said. “And of course, I called my mom.”
The new California law is part of a growing international movement to increase access to free menstrual products to combat menstrual inequity. In August, Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free period products nationwide. Meanwhile, state laws in the U.S. requiring public schools to provide free period supplies have increased rapidly in recent years, with the first law going into effect in New York in 2018. In total, 17 states, as well as Washington, D.C., have now passed legislation to ensure students have free access to menstrual products in schools, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies and PERIOD. Some individual schools and districts across the U.S. are also working to provide free period supplies.
Youth activists are increasingly leading the rallying cry to enact these laws or asking their district officials to address the issue.
In Hawaiʻi, for example, students should begin seeing menstrual products in restrooms this year thanks in no small part to the perseverance of teen activists. Students there worked with middle school teacher Sarah Milianta-Laffin (Houston ’06), a local organization known as the Maʻi Movement, and their state representative to get a menstrual equity bill passed. After several tries and delays due to the pandemic, the bill, which was supported by PERIOD., was signed into law this year. The students now hope their work could be a model for youth to make change in other states.
And still more menstrual equity bills are on the horizon, Pereda said, with California’s mandate setting off “alarms” for other states that are now working to catch up with a variety of related legislation. Dozens of bills have been proposed in states across the nation since last fall, ranging from removing taxes on menstrual products and providing free products in school restrooms, jails, and public spaces to increasing research funding, education requirements, leave requirements, and ingredient disclosure.
“The reality is the policy follows culture and the shift we are seeing across the country with the record number of bills being introduced is unprecedented,” Pereda said. “This is thanks to the work of menstrual equity activists and students from around the country, and we know that California’s bill had a ripple effect to even bring attention to this issue in the first place.”
Interested in Joining Teach For America?
An Equity Issue
It’s not uncommon for students to experience period poverty. About one in four students have struggled to afford menstrual products, according to the State of the Period 2021 study commissioned by PERIOD. and Thinx, a company that sells period products. Research has also shown that period poverty impacts mental health, sometimes leading to depression and anxiety, in addition to causing physical health issues. Low-income youth, students of color, and rural students are disproportionately affected.
Pereda witnessed period poverty firsthand as a special education teacher and case manager working in under-resourced communities in Washington, D.C. as a Teach For America corps member and later in South Central Los Angeles. Neither the middle school nor high school she worked in had a nurse on staff, so she regularly filled in the gaps, both with pads and education when students were caught off guard with their first period.
“This was about my niece, my little cousins, and all of my friends’ children who menstruate.”
She remembers it vividly. “They were scared, saying, ‘Miss, I am bleeding. Like, what does that mean?’ And they’re in sixth grade… So there’s clearly a lack of awareness and education about periods. That was a constant theme.”
“I wasn’t surprised, but it just kind of reminded (me) of the inequities of the schools that we’re in,” Pereda said.
It’s an issue Pereda and the team at PERIOD. believe will be solved within their lifetime now that young people are rallying around it. “We’re really seeing a shift in culture and we have no doubt that this is because of Gen Z and because of the impact of social media and the desire for change from young people,” she said.
Known as a “youth-fueled” organization, PERIOD. works with its chapters and young activists around the world to create systemic change to combat period poverty. The nonprofit also partners with state coalitions, organizations, and legislators to eliminate discriminatory taxes on menstrual products and to advocate for free products in public spaces.
Catalina Carbajal, 20, is among the new generation of activists reaching out to state legislators for support and mobilizing her Chicago, Illinois, community. As one of PERIOD.’s Youth Advisory Council members, she has gotten to know Pereda over the last two years and has discovered a newfound confidence to trust herself, she said.
“I see myself as a more effective activist and organizer because of the resources that (Pereda) has provided,” said Carbajal, who is also involved in farmworker, immigrant, climate, and reproductive justice movements.
A former California resident, Carbajal said seeing the recent legislation pass there gives her hope for Illinois, too. “Any time that there's like a victory... it always inspires more action in other states because it really does provide… a model, whether it's like literally the bill text or sometimes it just like encourages people to do it as well,” Carbajal said.
Mandates & Implementation Vary
This year has been the busiest ever for the menstrual equity movement in the U.S. In addition to California and Hawai‘i, eight states—Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington—and Washington, D.C., were required to begin providing free menstrual products at schools.
While there has been a rapid spread of menstrual equity laws since 2018, their requirements vary greatly from state to state, according to tracking by the Alliance for Period Supplies and PERIOD. Some mandates are only for high schools, a certain number of restrooms, or for women’s restrooms, which exclude some individuals who menstruate and do not identify as a woman. Some legislation includes state funding or grants that schools can apply for, while other mandates are unfunded by the state.
Creating a bill that’s inclusive and offers the most opportunity for access to menstrual products takes considerable planning and involvement from a variety of volunteers and organizations, Pereda says. She and the team at PERIOD. work to ensure bill proposals use gender-inclusive language, require as many locations as possible to offer period products, and establish clear funding mechanisms. They also support the development of implementation guidelines, and encourage ways to increase education about access to menstrual products and menstrual health.
Some lawmakers are proactive about that work while they are drafting bills, asking PERIOD. to review their proposals to help ensure they are following best practices and replicating what other states are doing right. “We have been one of the key voices in that room and it’s such an honor to be able to do that and kind of build and connect people,” Pereda said. “We’re really seeing that bridge across the country and in other countries as well.”
Working with a coalition of like-minded organizations, PERIOD. made recommendations on California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia’s bill for menstrual equity last year.
Catherine Xu, 18, drafted an early version of the California bill as a high school student when she served as governmental affairs policy director for the California Association of Student Councils. She asked Garcia to help the council carry the bill forward and has worked with Pereda on next steps.
“I think when it was signed into law, I realized that this is like a first step, but there is so much more to be done and also a lot of the bill depends on implementation,” said Xu, now a college student studying public policy. “And if we're not able to get implementation right, then it's really hard to make sure that everything is done properly and that the bill actually changes the lives of students in California.”
Workbooks for implementing the mandate are currently in development with the California Department of Education and the California State University system, Pereda said, and involve the input of PERIOD., the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Association of Student Councils, and multiple other organizations. Their workbooks are inspired by PERIOD.’s collaboration with the Oregon Department of Education’s toolkit, which outlines requirements and recommendations for school districts in a way that centers equity and dignity.
Get more articles like this delivered to your inbox.
The monthly ‘One Day Today’ newsletter features our top stories, delivered straight to your in-box.
Content is loading...
Pushing for Change at the National Level
Federal legislation to address menstrual equity is also in the works. The Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, would expand access to free menstrual products in schools, colleges, incarceration and detention facilities, homeless shelters, large workplaces, and all public federal buildings. Products would be included in Medicaid coverage and states would have the option to use federal grant funds to provide them in schools.
In June, the Young Women Run conference in Washington, D.C., highlighted the bill and featured training by Pereda and the PERIOD. team. Organized by IGNITE, a nonprofit that trains young women to run for office, the conference drew more than 100 high school and college students to learn about political leadership, community building, and empowerment. Attendees then put newfound lobbying skills to the test in the Capitol, where they talked about the menstrual equity bill with legislative staff.
Katie Fire Thunder, who is active in Bozeman, Montana, politics and raises awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, learned at the conference that period poverty is another human rights issue that affects her community. A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a political science college student, Fire Thunder spoke with a staff member from U.S. Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler’s office about the bill.
Herrera Beutler “has worked across party lines to get different bills that affect women’s health in the past, so we thought she would be a great ally,” Fire Thunder said.
Lobbying felt intimidating at first, she said, but being in that office—seeing family photos and learning the representative has a daughter—helped her tie back the message that anyone can be impacted by menstrual inequity whether it’s directly or through a relative or friend.
Armed with newfound menstrual equity statistics from the training, Shakira Jackson, a reproductive justice activist and master’s student studying democracy and governance, said she feels more empowered to talk about the subject. One of most eye opening facts for her: On any given day 800 million people are menstruating around the world. Systems need to be built to support them not just with resources but also with education, she said.
“We don’t necessarily see how this is really impacting us until I guess you sit down and reflect, right? To a lot of people it’s like, ‘Oh it’s just a period.’ But at the end of the day no, it’s so much more than that, like this is women’s mental health on the line. This is women’s health on the line,” said Jackson, a future 2023 TFA Baltimore corps member who experienced the stress of not having access to a menstrual product when she started her period.
Providing young people with information, resources, and training experiences helps equip new activists with the knowledge and confidence that can bring about systemic change, Pereda said. Since leaving the classroom eight years ago, Pereda continues to rely on her background as a former teacher to create PERIOD.’s curriculum content and toolkits, and facilitate training for youth activists.
She has high hopes for Generation Z. As she walked to the Capitol with newly trained menstrual activists during the conference this summer, Pereda sensed their excitement as they realized “that’s where everything happens” and the anticipation they had for their meetings with legislators.
“I think them recognizing their ability to make change is what’s so exciting; like ‘Oh, I can just go and talk to someone and it might change their mind on something, which can impact policy and can impact the lives of thousands of people,’” she said.
Beyond these first-time interactions with Congressional staff, the menstrual equity movement will also need continued local advocacy, Pereda said. “My hope is that they take those skills and they advocate for this at all levels in their community—whether it’s in their school, in their county, in their state—and that way it will kind of (have a) ripple effect.”
Featured image at top of page: Damaris Pereda (D.C. Region ’09) gathers with IGNITE conference attendees for a selfie in front of the Capitol as they prepare for a day lobbying legislators on the importance of passing the Menstrual Equity Act for All bill. Photo by Lisa Nipp.
We want to hear your opinions! To submit an idea for an Opinion piece or offer feedback on this story, visit our Suggestion Box.