Should Schools Provide Free Pads and Tampons?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Have you ever felt stressed, anxious or ashamed about your period — or do you know someone who has? Has the cost of pads or tampons ever been a challenge for you or someone you know?

Do these questions make you uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone. How do you deal with — or combat — period stigma?

In “‘Stand by Her’: In China, a Movement Hands Out Free Sanitary Pads in Schools,” Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien write about a grass-roots movement to distribute menstrual products to students in China:

It started when a single box of free sanitary pads appeared in a middle school classroom in October.

Then a plastic container with pads was attached to the walls of four bathrooms in a university in Shanghai.

By Monday, boxes and bags of individually wrapped pads had popped up outside bathrooms in at least 338 schools and colleges across China.

Each carried a version of the same instructions: “Take one, then put one back later. Stop period shaming.”

The pads were part of a broader effort to increase access to a product that not all students can afford, and to strip away the shame surrounding a natural bodily function that has long been stigmatized, according to organizers of a grass-roots campaign called Stand by Her.

Founded by Jiang Jinjing, a women’s rights advocate, the campaign aims to push the subject of period poverty — what the United Nations describes as the financial struggle low-income women and girls face to afford menstrual products — to the forefront of the national conversation. Ms. Jiang, who gained prominence in March after mobilizing deliveries of sanitary pads to hospitals in Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus outbreak, began the campaign to fight period poverty this year.

In an interview published in September by the online Shanghai magazine Sixth Tone, Ms. Jiang said she used to believe that menstrual products were inaccessible only in impoverished rural Chinese provinces, but soon realized that the phenomenon was widespread.

“This is so-called women’s poverty,” said Ms. Jiang, who is more widely known by her pen name, Liang Yu. “When we talk about poverty, women’s needs become automatically invisible.” She has declined a request for comment.

Her group raised $126,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in October to send pads to 2,000 teenagers in rural areas and to provide information about periods and sex education. A middle-school teacher took inspiration from Ms. Jiang’s efforts and placed a box with free sanitary pads in her classroom, telling her students to take one and replace it later.

Ms. Jiang posted photographs sent by the unidentified teacher on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. She encouraged others to follow suit, and the campaign surrounding what she called “mutual aid boxes” took off.

The article continues:

The inability to afford menstrual products is common in many countries, and that inaccessibility is often compounded by social mores that view menstruation as a taboo topic.

Women and girls in Nepal have been banished from their homes to huts during their period. At least one or two women die in the huts each year from exposure, animal bites or smoke inhalation after building fires to stay warm.

A study published in July by the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing found that nearly 70 percent of respondents said that they tried to hide the sanitary pads they carry around, and more than 61 percent used euphemisms for their period.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Should schools be required to provide free pads and tampons to students? How are pads and tampons similar to toilet paper, soap, Band-Aids and other products that are already provided in schools? How are they different?

  • Has access to menstrual products ever been a challenge for you or someone you know? What about expense? Are periods a source of financial stress for you or your siblings or friends?

  • Who should assume the cost of pads or tampons for students who cannot afford them? Groups like the Stand by Her campaign in China? School districts? Governments? How much responsibility should schools bear in helping students meet the basic physical requirements to be able to learn? How might students be affected if those needs are not met?

  • Do you feel squeamish talking about periods? Is discussing pads and tampons taboo, or stigmatized, in any of the communities you belong to? If you use menstrual products, do you ever hide them or feel embarrassed about them? Do you think that a stigma surrounding menstrual products can make them more difficult to gain access to?

  • Past student winners of our podcast and editorial contests have created pieces about period poverty and period stigma. Do you think your generation speaks more freely about women’s health than other generations? If so, does that include boys as well as girls?

  • What are some of the benefits of openly discussing periods and the challenges they present? How do you approach conversations that might make others feel uneasy or uncomfortable?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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