Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

California keeps girls in school by providing feminine products

Low-income students often stay home when menstruating due to the cost of pads and tampons. California's new law requiring products be available to young women in all Title I public schools joins similar legislation around the US addressing the issue.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Eighth grade students rotate into new positions at Edna Brewer public Middle School in Oakland, Calif., in 2014. A recent law passed in California mandates that free tampons and pads be made available to students in grades 6-12 who attend schools that qualify for Title 1 funding.

“Tampon Queen.”

That’s Assemblymember Cristina Garcia’s nickname around the California State Capitol, and she’s proud of it. In fact, “Tampon Barbie,” – a smiling Barbie holding a tampon – even sits on her desk to remind her and her colleagues of her signature cause.

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat representing an area southeast of Los Angeles and chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, has been working to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products for the last three years, to no avail.

But during her crusade, young girls have approached Garcia to thank her for her efforts, telling her how difficult it is to afford a $7 box of tampons or pads every month. 

“A lot of them would say ‘I can’t ask my parents to buy them, they are having a hard time getting the money to buy baby formula for my sister,’ ” says Garcia. “They talk about the shame and stigma of asking a grown-up.”

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, Calif., is leading the way on legislation in California to help make feminine hygiene products more affordable to low-income women and girls.

If she couldn’t make tampons and pads more affordable for everyone, Garcia decided to at least make sure low-income girls in California had easy access. If students have access to free or reduced lunch to ensure they focus on their education, Garcia wondered, why it should be any different with feminine hygiene products?

Garcia first drafted AB 10, a bill addressing this issue, in late 2016. In less than 10 months, in the fall of 2017, the legislation passed both houses with bipartisan support. On October 12, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Garcia’s legislation into law.

Now, all Title I public schools in California must stock feminine hygiene products in at least half of their bathrooms for students between the 6th and 12th grades. School officials across the state are working quickly to comply with the law, which allows them to be reimbursed by the state for their costs.

California’s AB 10 points in the same direction other states are headed. As of January 1, all schools in Illinois must stock tampons and pads in bathrooms at no cost for students between 6th and 12th grade. New York City passed a similar law in 2016. While many Americans assume that menstruation only causes girls to skip school in poor, underdeveloped countries, principals and politicians across the US are learning it is actually a problem that exists here in this country.

“Young women were telling me stories about things I would hear among homeless women,” says Garcia. “I was surprised to hear girls in my backyard would use socks with newspaper, or extend the life of a product, or just not go to school.”

'Can I have a cookie?'

School officials in Los Angeles say students have always had access to free tampons and pads in the school nurse’s office. But as students and school staff explain, it’s not always that easy.

During her 10 years as a school nurse in California, Lorna Bascara has worked at several schools. And at all of her posts, supplying tampons and pads to young girls has been a central duty.

At James Monroe High School, a Title I school in northern Los Angeles where she now works, Ms. Bascara orders the products in bulk. She has five to 10 students come to her office each day needing feminine hygiene products. If the student is in a group, and too embarrassed to ask for a tampon or pad outright, Bascara says they use secret code phrases, such as “Can I have a cookie?”

Lisa Ryder, a health and physical education teacher at Taft Charter High School in northern Los Angeles, says she and other teachers often buy tampons and pads for their classrooms with their own money because students will seek out teachers with whom they feel most comfortable.

And while Ms. Ryder says she doesn’t know of any of her students who skip school altogether because they have their period, she has experienced students being late to class because they are trying to find a teacher they trust who has supplies, and then find a bathroom, all in the few minutes in between classes.

Taft Principal Daniel Steiner says he has even had some students ask him for a tampon or pad. But he’s not surprised or uncomfortable. At Taft, almost 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so if a student comes to him needing supplies, he knows it is typically because she can’t afford them herself.

“We can’t assume they have access [to basic necessities],” says Principal Steiner. “When a student has to think about other things, they are distracted. Anything that we can do to help them get focused back on their learning, that’s a positive.”

Potentially one million students affected

When Garcia’s office contacted Jessica Bartholow to help rally support for the bill, she was initially confused. As a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, her work focuses on low-income Californians, not young women. But after learning more about the issue, Ms. Bartholow realized this work was directly in line with her mission to help as many disadvantaged Californians as possible.

California has 2,230 Title I middle and high schools as of this year, a designation which typically means at least 40 percent of the student population is in poverty. Based off of the average size of a California school, and assuming that girls make up half of the student population, AB 10 stands to serve almost 1 million female students.

Many of them won’t go to school during their periods if they don’t have access to tampons or pads, say advocates. And in California, a state that has some of the strictest attendance policies in the country, missing class can have serious repercussions for low-income families.

A student who misses 30 minutes of instruction more than three times in a school year is deemed a “truant” in California. Truancy has a sliding scale of penalties for both parents and students, from weekend school for students to $500 fines or jail time for parents.

“Instead of saying: ‘What do you need to come to school?’, they have said ‘Here is a penal code violation,’ ” says Bartholow. “This is one of the few topics that has addressed the barriers to participation in schools, rather than increasing the penalties to not showing up to school.”

Other legislative attempts

After being held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee since May, Garcia’s latest attempt to repeal California’s tax on menstrual products was effectively killed in the state legislature on Jan. 18. Opponents of the bill cite the the potential fiscal effect: repealing the sales tax on tampons and pads could cost the state $10.5 million annually

It’s difficult to get this kind of legislation passed, says Garcia, because the majority of legislators are men and can’t relate. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2018, less than 25 percent of California’s state legislature is female, which mirrors the national average.

Garcia says the women in legislators’ lives typically don’t have a difficult time affording the necessary products. Above all, many women are taught not to talk about menstruation. When people think “period” and “pad” are “bad words,” says Garcia, it is difficult to learn what young women need.

Some advocates say that is what makes AB 10 so special.

“It was a unique space where you had low-income advocates, women’s advocates, and social justice advocates all at the table,” says Bartholow. “[T]his campaign really pulled us all together… It strengthened the bonds of sisterhood in the Capitol at a time when we really needed it.” 

And Garcia plans to introduce a new tax repeal proposal by mid-February.

“We have a long way to go,” says Garcia, “but things are changing quickly.”

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