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Tampons in the mail? Just the beginning of the change we need

Women ...

Posted: Feb. 14, 2018 2:32 PM
Updated: Feb. 14, 2018 2:32 PM

Women pressuring T.J. Shope, a Republican Arizona state representative, to push forward a bill that would provide free and unlimited feminine hygiene products to female inmates in Arizona's state prison are sending him -- what else? -- tampons and pads.

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The bill, introduced by Rep. Athena Salman, was stalled over the weekend by Shope, because the Department of Corrections is currently revising its policy.

While it seems that almost any aspect of women's health, especially reproductive health, is always up for national debate, one would think that when it comes to such basic health care for women, aka half of the world's population, people would be in agreement: Women should have access to tampons and sanitary napkins when they have their periods.

But in 2018 America, too many women are still being denied their dignity -- often for economic reasons -- during a monthly, natural bodily function, and it's an issue that affects women in and outside the nation's prison system.

In Arizona, female prisoners in state and local institutions are allowed 12 free pads each month, and must either ask an officer or pay for any additional supplies. To make matters worse, female prisoners can only possess 24 pads at a time, and there are no free tampons. According to Mother Jones, women in Arizona state prisons would have to work 27 hours to earn the money for a box of tampons. And as any woman who has ever menstruated can tell you, hygiene products are not created equal. Not only is 12 a completely inadequate number of free pads, but having to pay for tampons -- which allow for greater freedom of movement and comfort for many women -- is appalling.

Thousands of marginalized American women, especially those who live in poverty, who are homeless, or incarcerated, are unable to afford feminine hygiene products, despite it being a billion-dollar industry in America.

To make sanitary products even more inaccessible, about 40 states in the United States (including New York) slap them with a sales tax -- a cost that products deemed "necessities," such as groceries, are exempt from in many states. This is known as the "tampon tax," something Canada has managed to eliminate, while campaigns to get rid of it are underway in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Even the United Nations recognizes menstrual hygiene as a public-health and human rights issue, with poor menstrual hygiene being linked to a host of health issues, from cervical cancer to infections when dirty cloths are used in place of sanitary napkins. Jyoti Sanghera, chief of the Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues Section, said the "stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity, that must be overcome."

The lack of action on this pressing issue for women's health amounts to a staggering failure to formulate adequate public policy.

"I can't imagine something more uncomfortable than not having the menstrual products you need for your period," Salman said on Facebook. "So my heart goes out to these women."

Even though the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced last year that female inmates in their facilities would be guaranteed free menstrual products, less than 10% of incarcerated women actually stand to benefit from the policy, because the majority of female prisoners are housed in state and local prisons.

States like Maryland and Nebraska have introduced legislation to tackle the disparity between men and women's access to the health care and personal hygiene products they need. Although the majority of inmates are men, the population of female inmates has been steadily growing for decades. According to the Correctional Association of New York, an organization that has monitored conditions in the state's prisons since 1846, and which wrote the report "Reproductive Injustice," the US women's prison population increased by nearly 900% between 1977 and 2013.

"Menstrual hygiene products should not be considered a luxury, and Maryland must do more to prevent dehumanizing situations where women inmates don't have sanitary necessities," Maryland Sen. Susan Lee, who is chief sponsor of a bill to help incarcerated women access more hygiene products, told the Frederick News-Post. Lee, a Democrat, introduced the bill last month, and it has bipartisan support from 33 state senators.

While it's great news that women state lawmakers are leading the way to change an inexcusable and inhumane law, the fact that women are suffering for such a basic need is a stark reminder of why we need more women in government and in charge of formulating policy that ultimately affects our bodies and our lives.

All women and girls in America must have access to feminine hygiene products, inside and outside the country's prison and streets. We must work to remove policies and restrictions that would deny women their dignity, and change domestic policy so sanitary products are affordable and accessible to all.

Anything less is just playing politics with women's lives -- every month.

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