One of Amanda Safi’s classmates got her period just before a physics exam. She apologized in the bathroom, found that she had no menstrual products on hand, and returned to class. She couldn’t concentrate on her test when blood seeped through her pants.
Another student got her period during soccer training. Nobody on the team had spare pillows or tampons, and the bathrooms didn’t have them in stock. She wrapped toilet paper around her underwear and went back to the field.
Safi, a graduate of Aragon High School in San Mateo, spent years collecting such peer-to-peer stories before deciding to take action to address the scarcity of menstrual products in her school.
“Every time I heard any of these stories, my heart ached because it usually resulted in a menstruator being forced to use unsanitary agents, missing excessive class time or exercise, or leaving school entirely,” Safi said. “Our non-menstrual male colleagues have a head start on this test or lesson while we have to study our biology.”
It’s an issue exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and hitting poorer students hardest: Schools and community resource centers, where lower-income students can get period products for free or at reduced cost, have been closed for months.
Safi, now a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, has launched the Period Equity Project, an initiative that aims to provide pads and tampons to students who cannot afford them during the pandemic. Next month, San Mateo County officials will vote on a proposal to reward Safi’s project with $ 20,000, enough to buy thousands of menstrual products for those in need.
The program is aimed at low-income students in two schools: San Mateo High School and Jefferson High School in Daly City. However, the products will be made available to anyone who needs them while schools are closed.
But Safi doesn’t want to stop providing aid during the pandemic. The project also aims to install free menstrual dispensers in girls’ and gender-neutral bathrooms in both schools when they resume in-person tuition, which is currently scheduled for fall 2021. Both schools offer distance learning but offer free lunch on weekday afternoons. Safi hopes to be able to add important menstrual products to the schools soon.
“Contemporary products are just as important as toilet paper, but our government and schools still don’t see our biology as worth the investment,” said Safi. “We see toilet paper in bathrooms that are provided free of charge, but we don’t see historical products in bathrooms even though menstruation is necessary.”
The San Mateo County Regulatory Board will meet on February 9 to discuss the $ 20,000 allocation to launch the initiative at San Mateo High School. Rep. Jackie Speier will make an initial donation of $ 5,000 from her campaign funds to start the pilot program at Jefferson High School.
Schools were found to have high numbers of low-income and underserved students, and they have been selected as the testing ground for the two-year pilot, due to start in mid-February, which aims to increase school attendance for girls and decrease the stigma of menstruation.
These funds are sufficient to provide 1,500 tampons, pads and other products for the spring semester and a further 1,000 for the fall semester. Funding would also buy dispensers, disposal units, and other necessary supplies. The program is expected to cost around $ 14,000 for both schools over two years.
“I can guarantee that if men had periods, we wouldn’t charge them any menstrual products,” Speier said. “It’s really outrageous and I would like to see the whole system change.”
The pilot is modeled after a 2016 New York City public school program that brought free menstrual products to bathrooms. Six months after the launch, the number of girls attending increased by 2.4%. Speier said data is being collected from the San Mateo pilot to determine if girl attendance rates are rising, which could serve as the basis for expanding the initiative to a statewide or state level.
“We hope we can make it something similar to filling up toilet paper and soap in dispensers,” said Don Scatena, director of the San Mateo Union High School District student union. “We don’t want to make it a special add-on. We want to make it part of the culture and climate of our schools. “
A Jefferson Union High School District spokeswoman was unavailable to comment on the initiative.
In a survey of her classmates, Safi found that many of her colleagues missed class or school activities because contemporary products were not easily available. Safi’s informal survey of her classmates is in line with a 2017 nationwide study by Always, a major feminine hygiene product maker, that found that one in five girls missed school because they did not have access to menstrual products.
As of 2018, California law has mandated that public middle and high schools with at least 40% low-income populations stock free feminine hygiene products in at least half of their bathrooms. Jefferson High School, one of two schools in the pilot program, meets this requirement and supplies some of its bathrooms with menstrual dispensers. With the new funding, the school could equip all girls’ and gender-neutral bathrooms with historical products, as suggested by Safi.
Across San Mateo County, 32.7% of the student-age population is low-income, according to state data, which means most schools are below the state threshold for products out of storage.
Michela Bedard, the executive director of the national nonprofit group Period, said the closure of public spaces such as schools, libraries and community centers during the pandemic was a “double blow” to people who suffered from period poverty – inadequate access to menstrual products and education.
“When we think of essential goods, we think of food, we think of shelter. We might even think of hygiene items, but very rarely do we think of menstrual items, ”Bedard said.
During that time, requests for menstrual products have increased tenfold immediately after pandemic shutdown orders began. In 2020, Period gave away millions of products – a 30-fold increase over the previous year. “That number was astonishing even to us, and we already know the depth of poverty in this country,” Bedard said.
Across the country, more than a dozen lawmakers passed bills in the past year to require public schools to store free menstrual products in bathrooms. Last year, Scottish officials passed laws requiring that leisure time products be made available to whoever needs them.
Safi began organizing in San Mateo and building support at her school before making a proposal to her headmaster. Safi had received approval from her school principal to track the pilot just before the pandemic forced all schools to take distance learning in March and put the project on hold.
Safi took some of Period’s training courses where she learned how to organize demonstrations and write to government officials. The organization then sent her 11,000 products from the time Safi had donated to animal shelters in her community.
That summer, she reached out to several officials in San Mateo County with her proposal, drawing the attention of Speier and Carole Groom, the supervisor of San Mateo County.
“When Amanda walked into our office, we were very intrigued by her story and what young women go through in high school. We are happy to support this cause, ”said Groom in an email statement.
Personal products for women have long been subject to the Pink Tax, a popular term used to describe the markup on products marketed specifically for women – sometimes 35 to 60% higher. Feminine hygiene products such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups are often classified as luxury items and receive an additional “tampon tax”.
“We are at a turning point in poverty in this country and we have young people who are braver and not afraid of stigma or taboo to talk about these issues,” Bedard said. “The more youth activists involved, the more elected officials and superintendents can take it seriously and the sooner we will get there.”
Vanessa Arredondo is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @v_anana