“Every student deserves the reassurance that their school restrooms are outfitted with the necessities to accommodate their biological needs,” said Charlotte Hallisey, one of the students tackling the problem in Connecticut. “Schools really have an obligation to serve all students equitably. We think that education is one of the most important things that someone can have to succeed.”
Menstruation is a normal bodily function affecting a quarter of the world’s population, but many people struggle to afford or have access pads and tampons necessary for maintaining good hygiene. Period poverty — the inaccessibility of these products, and the embarrassment and stigma associated with it — is one reason students miss school globally, according to the National Institutes of Health.
A lack of access to products is “directly associated with missing education, which puts (menstruators) behind,” said Hallisey.
Nearly one in five U.S. girls have left school, or don’t show up at all, because they had no access to pads or tampons, according to Always, a manufacturer of period products. In some cases, period poverty forces students, especially those in other countries, to use unhealthy alternatives such as rags, socks or even grass. To optimize their resources, some struggling students use their period products longer than advised, which can lead to unhealthy hygiene, toxic shock syndrome and infections.
Hallisey and fellow student Amy Barratt presented the issue to the Board of Education in May, explaining that even in Greenwich, where most students can likely afford period products, those who forget them at home or don’t have them with them are also impacted.
They asked the school district to stock the girls bathrooms in the three public middle schools and the high school with free pads and tampons and to add a disposable unit. The mandate costs about $6,000 for the first year and $3,000 for subsequent years, an estimate determined by Go Aunt Flow, a leading provider of pads and tampons in high schools.
In their pitch, Barratt and Hallisey pointed to New York, California, Illinois and New Hampshire, which have passed similar mandates.
Period product manufacturing companies are now bidding to provide pads and tampons to the Greenwich School District. School administrators are expected to select the company by the end of this year, according to the two students.
“We were so prepared to fight for our cause and really advocate for this necessary change, and we went in and (the former superintendent) told us it was a no-brainer,” said Barratt. “People don’t know what this is, and they don’t know the issue, but once they learn about it, they know that this is something that needs to change, and there’s a solution.”
After their presentation to the school board, then-superintendent Ralph Mayo promised Barratt and Hallisey that he would work with them to ensure products would be available in GHS bathrooms.
“I agreed that they had a compelling argument,” Mayo said. “Students shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced, embarrassed or waste time by going to the nurse when these products could be available in our bathrooms.”
After the school board agreed on June 3 to supply period products, the two students were encouraged to push for a statewide bill that would require all public school districts in Connecticut to provide pads and tampons in girls bathrooms in middle and high schools.
The idea of a statewide bill is championed by Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, who was was so impressed with their idea, that she convened a meeting at the Capitol in September for legislators, nongovernmental organizations and other interested parties to hear directly from Hallisey and Barratt.
“I expect that a bill will be, and a public hearing will follow,” Bergstein said. “That’s when we need all supporters from around the state to activate. The battle for true gender equality is multi-faceted, but this is one concrete and significant step we can take to close the gender gap and send a signal that all girls can be proud of and confident in their own bodies.
“This is not just a nice thing to do, it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
When the General Assembly convenes on Feb. 5, Bergstein has called on her colleagues to help introduce the bill and push for its passage. “And they are fully supportive,” she said of the other senators.
“We’ve seen the issue of period poverty, and the bills themselves, (are) fairly bipartisan,” said Barratt. “It’s more about morality and ethics as opposed to an issue at (either) side of the legislative spectrum.”
Their efforts have spread to youth and legislators from other towns, who are inspired to spearhead a similar initiative.
“I think it’s all about starting the conversations and advocating for that necessary legislation. It’s all about changing the laws and changing the mindset to create lasting change,” said Barratt.
She and Hallisey have also gained the support of many transgender people, who support their message that period poverty isn’t just a woman’s or girl’s issue.
“It is a human rights issue because it’s something that affects more than just this small population of people that we’ve always deemed menstruators,” said Barratt. “There’s a larger group of people that are affected by the issue.”
The students have created an online petition calling for passage of the statewide legislation, which has already garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
“These aren’t just two girls from one town advocating for an issue,” said Hallisey. “It’s an issue that hits home with many students.”
The two seniors are taking their expertise of working on their period poverty project to college and beyond.
For Hallisey, researching and fighting for the legislation has sparked an interest in possibly working as a human rights attorney or as an employee in a similar profession.
“It’s become clear that it’s most important to change laws and the system for years to come, so that change is created rather than putting a band aid on the issue,” she said.