Governor Josh Shapiro's budget would help students access period products - TAI News
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Menstrual equity advocates gather at the state Capitol on May 21, 2024 to call on the Legislature to approve Gov. Josh Shapiro’s plan to fund period products in public schools throughout Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania House of Representatives)

Many Pennsylvania students struggle to afford period products, leaving them to face both physical and mental health challenges during the school day. In response, Democratic lawmakers and advocates are calling on the state Legislature to back Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal to provide menstrual hygiene products in public schools free of cost to students throughout the commonwealth.

Shapiro, a Democrat, called for spending $3 million on menstrual hygiene products and product dispensers for bathrooms in public K-12 schools in his $48.3 billion budget proposal for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

“Many of our school districts are below the poverty line. So it’s free and reduced lunches in so many of our schools, and if they can’t afford food, they absolutely can’t afford period products,” said state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring a House bill that would establish a Menstrual Hygiene Products Accessibility Grant Program. “And it’s not anything that they should be ashamed of anymore. You know, we’re out of the dark ages now. We’re in 2024.”

Nationally, one in four teens struggles to pay for period products, and 44% of teens report stress and embarrassment over a lack of access to these products, according to the nonprofit PERIOD. In Pennsylvania, that translates to students skipping school, high school student Aarushi Dedhiya said.

“As we stand here today, there is a student who had to use a paper towel due to the lack of access of menstrual products, or another student skipping class since they just got their period,” Dedhiya, a junior at Cumberland Valley High School and a student representative on the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, said during a press conference in Harrisburg on May 21. “To understand the importance of speaking out about menstrual health, we need to understand the impacts of not talking about it.”

Talking about what’s known as period poverty — a lack of menstrual health products and education that affects millions of people worldwide — leads to better educational outcomes and physical and mental health for students because they’re not stressed or embarrassed to go to school while they have their period, Dedhiya, Democratic lawmakers, and menstrual health equity advocates explained.

“We need to speak about periods bluntly,” Rep. Darisha Parker, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement. “No more euphemisms or hiding tampons in our sleeves to use the restroom.

“It’s crazy that this natural biological process – a beautiful one that has the power to create life is still considered a taboo subject,” Parker continued. “It’s not just a financial issue but barriers to period products can lead to substantial health issues for women and perpetuate a cycle of poverty that can be impossible to escape from.”

Hill-Evans and Parker have led the charge in addressing period poverty in the state Legislature and are co-sponsoring legislation to fund period products in public schools. House Education Committee members passed that bill with bipartisan support in May; only two Republican members voted against it. The full House is expected to soon vote on the bill.

Originally, Hill-Evans and Parker had pushed the governor for half a million dollars to fund period products in schools.

“We were just ecstatic when we heard the budget and the governor’s proposing $3 million, not half a million,” Hill-Evans said. “Three million dollars for schools across the commonwealth, and the money would include the product. It would also include dispensers and whatever costs it would be for installation of those dispensers, and it would be free to anyone that needs them — free. So they don’t have to pay, so they don’t have to worry. There’s no judgment. You need it, you go, you get it, you use it, and you get back to class. And that, to me, is just amazing. I’m very excited.”

Parker is also sponsoring House Bill 850, which would allow women who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children to use funds from those programs to purchase period products. State Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat, has also championed access to period products and since 2019 has introduced the Pennsylvania Menstrual Equity Act every session. She again this session introduced the legislation, which remains in committee in the Republican-controlled Senate. Collett’s Senate Bill 906 would require the state’s public agencies that serve people who are “young, low-income, homeless or incarcerated” to make period products available at no cost.

Lynette Medley, who has for years been distributing free menstrual products in Philadelphia and in 2021 opened the SPOT Period in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown to offer free menstrual products and education, said the governor’s proposal would be life-changing for Pennsylvania students and will help to fill a significant need in the state. In Philadelphia, Medley has seen that need: Her organization gives out more than 63,000 menstrual products every single week.

“But numbers alone cannot capture the true essence of our mission,” Medley said during the press conference in Harrisburg. “Each woman crying in relief after attending a class and realizing that her period pain is not just in her head. Each young girl who comes with a joyful moment after receiving a period product, happy that she can now go to school, stay in school, stay for tutoring.

“Every product distributed, every individual supported, every individual educator represents a step towards breaking the stigma around menstrual health,” Medley continued. “These actions foster a society where everyone has access to health care and the services they need. So in closing, let us remember menstrual health is a fundamental human right.”

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