Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Gathered before over a hundred people dressed in a sea of pink and red, Emily Bell McCormick of Utah Policy Project told the story of Mia and Sarah to illustrate the need for menstrual products in Utah schools.
Mia is a 16-year-old girl in 10th grade at Salt Lake City School District who lives with her mother and two sisters, McCormick said. Unable to afford menstrual products, the family uses cotton balls and folds rags over them. Mia and her sister don't attend school during their periods due to the fear of the cotton balls falling out of their pants.
Sarah grew up in a mobile home in the Salt Lake area. Her household income was below the poverty line and she did not have access to care. Like Mia and her sister, when Sarah's period arrived each month she stayed home.
Mia and Sarah aren't alone. In a national survey commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD, teens indicated that 1 in 5 struggled to afford period products. Additionally, 1 in 4 girls in the U.S. have missed class due to lack of access to period products. This is referred to as "period poverty," which is a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities and waste management.
"Right now, we can entirely solve the issue of poverty that every Sarah and Mia in the state is facing. Poverty is a huge multifaceted issue. It's often multigenerational," McCormick said. "And many people are working on solving poverty, but we won't see the end of that issue in our lifetime. Period poverty and the lack of access to sanitary products is one facet of poverty that is solvable — and we can solve for in my lifetime."
Ally Isom, former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Gary Herbert and candidate for 2022 U.S. Senate, told the audience the impact period poverty had on her as a child.
"When we talk about period poverty, I was that girl. When we talked about the girl who rolled up toilet paper and cotton balls to make her pads last longer, I was that girl. We talked about the girl who stayed home because she didn't have products, I was that girl. When we talked about the students whose parents were choosing between food and gas and rent, let alone the luxury of an adhesive pad, I was that girl," Isom said.
"I cannot imagine the tremendous relief I would have felt if someone would have considered period products a basic health and sanitation need, much like toilet paper, rather than a luxury," she continued.
The experience of period poverty can have physical and mental impacts. The impacts can also extend into the workforce and educational system, McCormick said.
"Menstrual equity and addressing period poverty sometimes falls into that vote of a woman's issue, and we really tried to remove it from that because it's really an education issue, a workforce issue," McCormick said. "If you have a period, you bleed for 16% of your year. Imagine if we disadvantaged women by 16%."
What's the solution?
The Utah Policy Project has created legislation sponsored by state Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, implementing and appropriating funds to increase access to free, safe and quality menstrual products in Utah's public and charter schools. The group's campaign, The Period Project, insists that the menstrual products be placed in school bathrooms to ensure accessibility and privacy.
The group estimated the cost to be anywhere from $3.6 million to $4.8 million dollars. Part of that cost would be mitigated by private donors. While calling on Utah legislators to support the bill, Utah Policy Project board members announced a $1 million donation by the Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller Family Foundation matched by the Andrus Family Foundation.
"This is lifting every single girl that I help. It is the refugees, it is the single moms, it is the women out there struggling and not showing up when they have to show up," said Kristin Andrus, a philanthropist partnering with The Period Project. "The stories that I've heard from custodians and students and principals will stick with me. I know better. I have to do better."
The donations will go toward purchasing dispensers for every female and all-gender public charter school bathrooms throughout the state.
"This bill will enact a reliable solution to help Utah students manage their periods combining an appropriation from the Legislature with money from private donors to place these period products in every school," Lisonbee said. "This solution respects our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students' privacy and feelings by offering these products in school restrooms, rather than in the classroom or main office."
Who supports it?
Utah teachers, school nurses and counselors, and community advocates all voiced their support of the bill. Among those who voiced support was Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who said the Cox administration is "behind" the bill.
"This is a historic moment, actually, in the state because there are issues like this that have been fought for a long time, and it's really hard sometimes for these issues to gain traction," Henderson said. "It's something that's very important to us. And identifying and removing barriers to access, to opportunity is something that we are actively pursuing every single day in our administration, and this is something that really will remove some barriers that exist for girls in school."
Sheryl Ellsworth of the Utah State Board of Education also voiced her support saying that the issue is one that could be addressed without partisanship.
"There are political issues, as a state, which need to be tackled and some of them we're not doing that great: racism, equal pay for women, high suicide rates, and many more. But here's one topic we can actually make an immediate difference in for all girls and women," she said.