When inmates require more sanitary pads during their periods, they're sometimes required to present a bag filled with used pads to prove that the amount they were given hasn't sufficed. When people staying in city shelters who can't afford to buy menstrual products get their periods, it's not always a guarantee the shelter will be able to provide them, as donations of such items aren't all that frequent. But a package of bills on the table at the City Council would change that, requiring the city's shelters and correctional facilities to immediately provide pads or tampons to anyone who requires them.
The legislation would also make such products freely available to all students in city schools, following up on a successful pilot program that installed more than 300 dispensers in 25 schools over the past two months.
At a City Council hearing on the legislation today, Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who chairs the committee on women's issues, pointed out that the city's most vulnerable populations often have the most limited access to menstrual hygiene products, which, until state legislation goes into effect in September, are also currently taxed as luxury products. The cost of such products isn't included in health insurance, nor federal SNAP or WIC benefits, though legislation proposed in Congress by Queens Representative Grace Meng would allow the purchase of menstrual products using flex spending accounts.
In theory, inmates in the city's correctional facilities have open access to menstrual hygiene products: according to the Department of Correction, generic pads and tampons are freely available, and name-brand products can be purchased at the commissary for about $4 each. But advocates speaking before the City Council said that what they've heard from inmates doesn't match up with what the DOC is saying. At the Rose M. Singer center on Rikers Island, for example, the DOC provides 144-count boxes of thin pads each week for 50 inmates, which comes out to 2.8 pads per person, if all require pads at the same time, or about 14 per person if, say, 10 are menstruating at the same time, a more conservative estimate.
"We're told they're given a very small ration of feminine hygiene products, generally sanitary pads, and the number they tell us is usually 12," said Andrea Nieves, an attorney at Brooklyn Defenders who represents women on Rikers Islands. "We know from medical experts that you're supposed to change your pad every four hours, so if you're given only 12 pads for the time of your period that would only last you two days."
When women run out of pads, they have to ask correction officers for more, Nieves said, a process that can be quite humiliating.
"It's a method the guards can use to control women, which is extremely problematic," she said. "These are women who are overwhelmingly victims, and yet they continue to be victimized at Rikers Island."
For homeless individuals, menstrual hygiene products are often too expensive to purchase in stores—but shelters and food banks have trouble keeping up an adequate stock of the products. According to a team of graduate students from The New School, who have been conducting research in the city's shelters to assess needs regarding menstrual products, 52% of the women interviewed said that they have faced a lack of menstrual products and have had to forgo them at some point.
Rachel Sabella, Director of Government Relations at Food Bank For New York City, said that when the bank does get donations of sanitary products, they often have to tear the packages open and ration out the pads and tampons, as there aren't enough to just give out the packages themselves.
"When we do get feminine hygiene products, they come as a welcome relief," Sabella said, but women in poverty have to ask themselves: "'Do I buy feminine hygiene products when there are other necessities my family needs?'"
The bills before the council would require that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters, and that the Department of Correction provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request. Additionally, the legislation would provide pads and tampons for free to all city public school students. Some high schools already distribute the products for free through the nurse's office, but that's not nearly as convenient as having them readily available in bathrooms, as one senior at Brooklyn Tech testified.
"If you need a pad or tampon you're expected to go to the nurse between classes," explained Linea Mitchell. "So we have four minutes...you have to hope that she gives you a late pass, and go to the bathroom and try to make it back to class on time, which is highly unlikely in four minutes."
The proposed legislation was well received by the advocates who testified, though several people recommended adjusting the language to refer to tampons and pads as "menstrual" hygiene products, rather than "feminine" hygiene products," to be more inclusive of those who may not identify as female but nonetheless menstruate. The legislation, which also includes a resolution in support of the state repealing the tax on sanitary products, will now go before the council as a whole, though no date for that has yet been set. But passing the legislation, the councilmembers present today argued, should really be a no brainer.
"We didn't have to have a hearing when we distributed free condoms," Councilmember Karen Kozlowitz pointed out.