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How access to period products removes a barrier to education

A growing number of states are exempting menstrual products from tax. Advocates for period equity argue taxing these supplies is unfair because periods are a necessity, not a choice. And some schools and universities are now opting to provide these products free in an effort to reduce absences and ensure that low-income students have access to them. Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, There is growing attention about the costs of menstrual products, and how difficult it can be for some women and girls to pay for these essential needs.

    Now many school districts and universities, as well as a few cities and states, are providing free feminine products in schools for students who might need them or can't afford them.

    For our weekly segment Making the Grade, special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, reports on efforts to end what's been called period poverty.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Young women all over the country report remarkably similar experiences.

  • Stephanie Guza:

    Everyone's just kind of grossed out and then embarrassed to talk about it.

  • Maggie Di Sanza:

    A lot of people say that time of month. People say Aunt Flo has come to visit. People say Shark Week.

  • Cordelia Longo:

    We shouldn't be made to keep it a secret.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Jorge Elorza agrees.

  • Jorge Elorza:

    Periods are a part of life, period.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    He's the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island and he's on a mission to reduce the stigma around menstruation.

  • Jorge Elorza:

    We want all of us to feel comfortable saying the word period, saying the word tampons and pads. And that's a big part of what we're trying to overcome.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Were you ever awkward about using the words in public?

  • Jorge Elorza:

    Probably. Like, at first, it didn't flow as easily. Now I wear a P for periods pin on my lapel.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    You better clarify that, because people will really think that.

  • Jorge Elorza:

    OK, not, it's for Providence.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Elorza says the shame surrounding menstruation has practical implications. A year ago, the city began looking into why so many of their students were chronically absent, missing 10 percent of the school year.

    Ellen Cynar, the head of the city's Health Communities Initiative, found, in many cases, it was because girls were on their period.

  • Ellen Cynar:

    It's affecting their attendance at school. It's affecting their participation in physical activities. And it's affecting their participation in social activities.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Sixteen-year-old Litzy Feliz has friends who stay home when they're menstruating. Some can't afford to buy pads.

  • Litzy Feliz:

    Some of them have to buy it themselves because their parents doesn't buy it for them, because I have a friend that she buys it herself. She will be like, oh, I have to buy it now, but I don't really have the money. I don't know whether it's going to be more or less. Like, I see them worry about it.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Cynar says this is not an uncommon scenario. The vast majority of students in Providence schools are low-income.

  • Ellen Cynar:

    They're either finding proxy products. So that would be rolling up toilet paper, for example. Or they're not changing their product as often as they should, which is very dangerous to their health.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    There are usually pads available in the nurse's office, but advocates say many students are too embarrassed to ask, and not all schools have a nurse.

    Besides, says Maggie Di Sanza from Madison, Wisconsin, they're not ill.

  • Maggie Di Sanza:

    People go to the nurse's office when they are sick and when something is wrong with their body or when something is irregular. But having a period is not irregular.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Cordelia Longo from Mercer Island, Washington, forgot a pad one day and spent 20 minutes out of class looking for one. Lots of her friends had the same experience.

  • Cordelia Longo:

    I wanted kids to step back and see it doesn't just happen in African countries or in other places. It happens at home.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Both teens raised money to buy period products for their schools. Soon after, they were able to convince administrators to provide them in most bathrooms for free.

    Nadya Okamoto founded the organization Period when she was 16.

  • Nadya Okamoto:

    When I heard about period poverty, my first reaction was not, oh, that makes sense, but it was like, are you kidding me?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    It's donated more than seven million free pads and tampons. They have 400 chapters in schools and universities in all 50 states.

    Okamoto says this issue resonates with young people because the stigma around periods is not as ingrained. Also, she says, they're more connected.

  • Nadya Okamoto:

    In this age of social media, when social media is an extension of our own self-expression, and we can use it to connect with people and start conversations, we're able to break the stigma digitally in more ways than could have ever been imagined before.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    States such as California, Illinois, New York and Tennessee have passed laws to provide students with free period products in certain school bathrooms.

    But some principals, who didn't want to be identified, complain these products are expensive, and they aren't getting reimbursed. Some say students take home pads for family members or even sell them, adding to the cost.

    But Providence officials say they haven't had these challenges, and that the $75,000 set aside for this initiative is a fraction of the $75 million city budget.

    Last year, they installed free dispensers in a few school bathroom.

  • Solight Sou:

    So, if someone were to want something — so, tell me, what would you like today?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    So, say, I wanted a pardon.

  • Solight Sou:

    OK, so all you have to do, very easily, is just push a button. The product dispenses with a box.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Solight Sou heads wellness programs for city schools. She says students can only take one pad or tampon at a time.

  • Solight Sou:

    These are set with a timer at about a minute-and-a-half to avoid any exploitation or overusage of the products.

  • Carina Monge:

    You need to be able to help them during the school hours.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Carina Monge, who works with middle schoolers, says the dispensers are part of a broader push around health education. She says children often don't have access to basic information at home.

  • Carina Monge:

    I have a student that she lives with her father, and the father never told her about the periods. So she learned about how to use a pad, how frequently she needs to change the pad, in school.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Sou says, anecdotally, they're already hearing positive feedback.

  • Solight Sou:

    Our students did tell us they were more ready to learn, they were able to engage in physical activity such as gym classes without the level of discomfort that they had before. They also had increased confidence, and it became less taboo overall.

  • Wobberson Torchon:

    Let's make it to our classes on time.

    It's a sense of relief. You can see in their faces the fact that a barrier has been removed. It's a sense of freedom.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Principal Wobberson Torchon's school had free dispensers this past year. He's seen the difference in his students firsthand. Torchon says this issue is bigger than education.

  • Wobberson Torchon:

    This is an ethical issue. It's a moral issue for the principal. So whatever problem we have in education with a subgroup, with a section of the population, we need to address it, so that everyone can be on equal footing in that learning. Anything that affects my students becomes my responsibility.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    This fall, when schools reopen, there will be two dispensers stocked with free products in every middle and high school in the city.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Providence, Rhode Island.

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