The Fight for Free Menstrual Products at School

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As a student at St. Michael-Albertville High School, I experienced the educational consequences of having a menstrual cycle. If I forgot to bring tampons and pads, I spent time searching for those products. If I couldn’t find any, my only option was to leave school for the day.

Trinity Hanif

Many menstruators at my high school resonated with this struggle and shared similar stories of trading in class time to search for period products. To us, it was unfair that the school provided non-menstruators with the hygiene products they needed (toilet paper, soap, and paper towels) while every month, we were forced to scavenge.

According to a 2021 national survey of 1,000 students ages 13 to 19, 84 percent either missed class time or knew someone who missed class time because they did not have access to period products. Twenty percent struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all, and 61 percent had worn a tampon or pad for more than four hours because they did not have enough access to period products, increasing the risk of toxic shock syndrome.

In 2020, I and the rest of St. Michael-Albertville’s Youth Advocacy Club brought the issue to the school board. I emailed our district’s superintendent, outlining the issue and a possible solution: provide students with free menstrual products in school bathrooms. The school administration refused. While the district had a budget surplus, the school board wanted to spend that money on other initiatives.

I started a petition and hung up posters around school encouraging students and staff to sign it. The posters featured a cartoon picture of a tampon and pad. One teacher refused to display the poster in her classroom. She called the image of the tampon and pad “disgusting and explicit” and forced me to make an alternative poster for her classroom. After a few days, the petition was signed by more than 600 students and community members, but the school board refused to budge.

Not long after, the pandemic hit, and menstrual product stock began running low in stores around our community. To address period poverty (a term that describes the struggle many low-income menstruators face while trying to afford menstrual products, and the increased economic vulnerability and financial burden of acquiring menstrual supplies), our club collected menstrual product donations and delivered them to those in need.

When we returned to in-person school, I acquired a grant from the Minnesota Youth Council to buy period products and a dispenser. Our administration team refused to let the janitorial staff restock the dispensers during their rounds; they let me buy products for the school only if I restocked the bathrooms myself. So, a few times a week after class, I grabbed pads and tampons from the storage closet and refilled a gender-neutral bathroom organizer.

I wanted to put the product in the boys’, girls’, and gender- neutral bathrooms, but the administration blocked me from stocking product in the boys’ bathrooms. I wanted everyone who menstruates, despite how they identify, to have access to menstrual products, but in a meeting, the administration expressed concern that male students would not be able to control themselves around tampons and pads, and they told me not to stock the boys’ bathrooms.

Toward the end of my senior year, I was running out of product, and all of the grant money was gone. I felt like it was my responsibility to find another way. Thus far, I was the one taking charge of the effort, and I didn’t want students to go back to not having access. For months, I struggled to find a means of acquiring more product. Eventually, I connected with an organizer in the Twin Cities who was donating free products. To get them, I had to leave school several hours early and drive to a warehouse in Golden Valley. She filled my trunk and back seat with several boxes of tampons and pads, and I loaded boxes bigger than me out of my truck and carried them to the storage closet at school.

With more product, our club wanted to expand this service to more bathrooms at school, so I organized a fundraiser where students could send a kind note and a Hershey’s Kiss to a friend. We raised a couple hundred dollars to buy product organizers.

The burden of providing an entire high school population with menstrual products should not be placed on a student.

My only responsibility should have been school, but I felt obligated to continuously find free pads and tampons and refill the bathroom dispensers.

In order to attend to these responsibilities, I missed valuable class time.

Last year when the Menstrual Equity Bill was introduced by Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL–District 39B, New Brighton) and Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, (DFL–District 49, Eden Prairie), I knew I had to get involved. I wrote an op-ed for Sahan Journal supporting the passage of this bill. Soon after, I was interviewed on MPR News, where I advocated for Minnesotans to call and email their elected officials. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in the Republican-led Senate. However, because voters flipped the Senate blue in November, this session we have a chance of getting this legislation across the finish line.

Since early fall, I have been working with Rep. Feist and her coalition to get the bill passed. In January, I also testified in front of the House’s Education Policy Committee on behalf of the Menstrual Equity Act (HF44 and SF50), which would use state funds to provide free products in schools serving students in grades 4–12. I have also been involved in conversations about extending this effort to institutions of higher education in Minnesota.

Currently, this bill is making its way through the state legislature. If it passes, students in Minnesota will no longer have to bear the burden of menstrual product equity. This responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of school districts and the state.

Trinity Hanif (she/her) is a freshman at Carleton College and a prospective political science major. She serves on her school’s Community Title IX Board and is a policy lead on the governor’s Young Women’s Cabinet, where she supports legislation that uplifts women of color and other marginalized groups.