Podcaster Farah Eltohamy talks with two experts to discuss the issue of menstrual equity on the basis of university and public policies. They highlight a variety of other issues surrounding menstruation, such as period poverty and the overall stigma.
Farah Eltohamy: Recently ASU junior Hanna Salem became president-elect after winning a majority of votes in the USG Tempe spring election. Out of the many platforms Salem campaigned on, one of them was menstrual equity. In general, no matter where in the world, menstruation is seen as a taboo topic. The reality of the situation has created a "period stigma" for those who do menstruate, meaning they're taught to feel shame and embarrassment about a necessary biological function. The effects of period stigma extend even beyond just conversation and into actual policy with harmful repercussions. Currently in the United States, 36 states have a luxury tax on menstrual hygiene products and the period stigma hasn't exactly helped in bringing this important issue to the forefront.
Michelle Villegas-Gold: My name is Dr. Michelle Villegas-Gold and I work at Arizona State University. I have degrees in counseling, public health and a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from here at Arizona State University as well as New York University. I'm also a violence epidemiologist and trauma specialist.
Farah Eltohamy: What exactly is menstrual equity?
Michelle Villegas-Gold: Menstrual equity is the belief that all women who menstruate, and this includes cisgender women, as well as trans women, or women who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, have the right to effectively manage their menstruation with dignity. That includes both the low hanging fruit issues like access – can you afford menstruation products? Things like eliminating the sales tax on menstruation hygiene products. That includes cost, and then quality. What types of ingredients and materials are being used in menstruation hygiene products. Are they toxic? Are companies being transparent about what's in them?
Then on the other side of it we also have the bigger issues like the stigma surrounding menstruation, a lack of respect for women's bodies and our lack of rights surrounding our reproductive and sexual health.
Those things I think are equally important, and then there's the issue of gender parity as well. If you experience period poverty or you're missing school or it's impacting your work, how can women achieve gender equity in the workplace and all those other realms?
Farah Eltohamy: What are the many ways you can see mental equity being implemented on college campuses?
Michelle Villegas-Gold: College campuses and schools in general are really critical sites for menstrual equity. One of the ways that this could take place is that schools could make menstrual hygiene products free and available to all students. Instead of having to purchase your menstrual hygiene products, they're available free to you in every public restroom just like you can get toilet paper. That's one way.
Another way I think that's really important is opening up a dialogue to reduce the stigma around menstruation. Instead of having it be something that's really silenced and being able to talk about it, and not have it be something that's embarrassing or stigmatized in any way.
Farah Eltohamy: Providing menstrual hygiene products for free in public restrooms is a step in the right direction. How about recognizing absences from class due to the complications of having a period?
Michelle Villegas-Gold: You look in classroom practices and just the course syllabi in general – do you feel comfortable even getting up and using the bathroom during class? Do you have to ask permission to get up and use the restroom during class? I think most women have experienced periods where they do miss work or school or you have an accident or something happens. Those should be valid reasons to have an excused absence if you need that. If we think about the power dynamics in universities, how often as young women or older women, do we even feel comfortable going to a professor and telling them that that's why we missed class or that's why you're not going to make it to class. I think that if it was more of a top down approach or in the syllabi, if there was a clause about it, people might feel more comfortable to be able to come out and do that.
Farah Eltohamy: With the 36 states that do have a luxury tax on mental hygiene product because mental hygiene products are exempt from being seen as a basic necessity, why is that the case if anyone who menstruates knows that having a period is not a luxury?
Michelle Villegas-Gold: People have made arguments that Viagra doesn't have a sales tax, so it's incredibly unfair that's something that many of us need to get through our lives, and some people can't afford. People talk about period poverty. Imagine as a woman having to choose between buying food one week or buying tampons or pads, that should never be a choice that women have to make.
I do want to be really clear though that I think just by eliminating the sales tax doesn't mean we've achieved menstruation equity and I think that those products are still probably going to be priced at a point where a lot of women can still not afford it or access them. I think that's a really important step and it's something that I'm 100% behind. I just think it's really important that we don't just get stuck on that and then we understand like the larger context in which that plays a part.
Farah Eltohamy: Now that we've covered university policy, what about public policy?
Sitting with me today is an ASU alumnus, Rep. Athena Salman. Salman currently serves in the Arizona House of Representatives for legislative district 26, and is also one of the house minority whips.
Back in February of 2018, Rep. Salman introduced a menstrual equity bill, HB 2222. If the bill was passed, it would have ensured that women in Arizona prisons would get unlimited access to menstrual hygiene products, in place of their allotted 12 pads a month.
Although the bill did not go through, the Arizona Department of Corrections changed their policy from 12 pads to 36 pads a month, in response to backlash.
Athena Salman: I am the house minority Whip, and in 2017 I learned that women across the country, not just in Arizona, were not provided adequate feminine hygiene products. When I came home and investigated in Arizona I learned that, it was also happening in Arizona. Women were only getting 12 pads a month, so they weren't getting any tampons whatsoever. I introduced a bill, HB 2222 in 2018 to try and address the issue. It was great that we got a committee hearing and the women who were formerly incarcerated can testify about their experience and the experience of their fellow female women who are still incarcerated today. I think that provided the catalyst for change.
Those personal stories, the firsthand experience of how undignified it is to be denied something that's just a basic human need. It definitely sparked the public outrage that was necessary to at least propel the Department of Corrections to change their policy internally, even if the majority male state legislature wasn't going to do it.
Farah Eltohamy: The reason why access to menstrual hygiene products are so limited is because of the stigma surrounding periods. How do you think whether through legislation or not, we can combat that stigma?
Athena Salman: Project Humanities at ASU invited me to be a part of a panel with myself and three other experts. It was just a campus community event to educate on this issue and I think that's a great example outside of trying to directly influence public policy and to try and make change on this topic. Most people don't think about it because most people don't talk about it. The problem is when we don't talk about the various struggles and the various things that we experience, is that if it's not talked about then it's not being resolved one way or another.
The literal definition of we're not talking about it means we're doing nothing about it to fix it.
As you mentioned there is a lot of taboo around the topic, just go back to HB 2222 to watch the committee hearing and you'll see there were no women on the committee, it was just men, and you'll see the men shifting their seats or making comments.
Regardless, about whether or not we talk about it, people in our society are still going to menstruate. I just think it's fundamentally unfair that menstruating individuals, largely who are women, are missing school because they don't have adequate access to a pad or a tampon. They're missing work over it because of that lack of access, and that doesn't even include the other clinical pains that can come with having a period, anywhere from cramps to actually different illnesses like endometriosis.
We need to be talking about it. It's a health issue. We shouldn't have the taboo around it. I not only introduced the bill again to codify into law that women in prison have access to feminine hygiene products, I think that the policy change was a step in the right direction. It's just a step, it's not all the way to codifying into law. This year I also introduced HB 2715 which would ensure that any public building that relied on any tax dollars to exist, if they are providing restrooms available to the public, that those restrooms also have to have menstrual products. Again it's to ensure that everyone is taken care of, and that nobody is not being thought of in their hygienic needs.
Farah Eltohamy: With the bill that you just mentioned, did that one make it to the floor?
Athena Salman: No, it didn't go on the floor. In fact if I look at the bill right now – the Speaker of the House, who is a male, didn't even assign it to a committee. That's disappointing because even when bills don't get a committee hearing, at the very least, to assign a bill to a committee demonstrates that the most powerful person in the chamber, the speaker, acknowledges that it belongs somewhere in the body and not just in a shelf.
Farah Eltohamy: Before we finish, do you have any final words about this issue?
Athena Salman: Just think about all the life experiences that are out there. Think about what you do today. If you're a menstruating individual, and if you're not, ask someone that you know. Then in addition, what if that person was homeless. What if that person was in prison. What if that person was a refugee and had to flee their home country or had to migrate because of the lack of opportunity or the real threat that existed. And then add into that, having a menstrual cycle. I feel like the legislation that I propose is the bare minimum to start addressing this issue. I think that as we raise awareness, we should start calling to action ways and solutions that we could be taking care of people with their most basic hygienic needs, so that those people can can go on and worry about more pressing issues in their lives.
Farah Eltohamy: For the State Press, I'm Farah Eltohamy.