Last week, Florida Representative Stan McClain gave public testimony about a bill (Bill 1069) that would restrict children below the 6th grade from learning or talking about their menstrual cycles in school. The so-called “Don’t Say Period” bill does not use the words “period” or “menstruation,” but when asked if the bill would prohibit girls from having conversations about their menstrual cycles, McClain stated in no uncertain terms that it would. Meanwhile, Republican legislators in Idaho just blocked a bill that would have provided free menstrual products in public schools, declaring it “too woke.”
In the U.S., the average age for menstruation to begin is 12, but the Department of Health and Human Services defines it as normal for periods to begin as young as age 8. This means that if the Florida bill passes, many elementary school-aged students will not be able to speak to their school nurse, their teacher, or each other about bleeding and menstrual products.
Given this assault on menstrual equity, it is time for all corporations, no matter the industry, to support menstrual literacy and advocacy that ensures access to accurate information about periods and women’s health. Two experts — Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author of Periods Gone Public — provide suggestions for what businesses can do today.
Megha Desai is a menstrual health advocate and president of the Desai Foundation, an NGO that empowers women and children through community programming to elevate health, livelihood and menstrual equity in rural India. Their award-winning Asani Sanitary Napkin Program has impacted millions of girls by combatting menstrual inequity in rural India. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the program in February of this year to advance the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) agenda to provide employment opportunities and health care services to girls and women.
Desai was horrified to receive news of the proposed Florida bill. “We’ve seen first-hand the danger that can be done to the mental and physical health, education, livelihood and dignity of menstruators when they aren’t armed with the right information and tools to manage their periods,” Desai says. “We have worked for 15 years to break the cycle of stigmas and false narratives around periods in India, training women to manufacture and retail quality, sustainable sanitary napkins throughout their communities. But recently, there have been many attacks on menstrual equity right here in the United States.”
The attacks are four-fold, Desai says. One, there is widespread period poverty, which means that lack of access to menstrual products causes girls to miss school and women to miss work. Two, there are pervasive stigmas, myths, and misinformation about menstruation. Three, there is inadequate health education. Four, there is a failure on the part of policymakers to fully understand and prioritize menstrual health and equity. “What we need is to talk more about menstruation, not less,” says Desai emphatically.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, executive director of NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network – who literally wrote the book on menstrual policy – agrees. “Fluency in the menstrual cycle is an essential matter of personal health and hygiene,” she says. “In our post-Roe society, we can’t rely only on schools to impart these lessons. Not at a time when our reproductive health is subject to partisan politics and truly anti-democratic practices. It is increasingly vital that all of us become fully engaged in menstrual education and support.”
Weiss-Wolf recently proposed a practical intervention that calls upon the private sector’s to share in a commitment to menstrual equity: Companies that sell menstrual products should provide accurate health information about periods to the billions of consumers worldwide who purchase pads, tampons, period underwear and menstrual cups – both in the packaging and on their websites. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already mandates uniform language in tampon boxes to warn about the risks and symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. “When it comes to imparting menstrual literacy, the life-saving impact is just as real,” says Weiss-Wolf.
Many period product companies already have made menstrual advocacy part of their mission. They address global period poverty, combat period stigma, and promote an end to the so-called “tampon tax.” This is a logical extension of those efforts. But all corporations can contribute.
Here are Weiss-Wolf and Desai’s recommendations to business leaders for how they can support menstrual equity by making menstruation part of company benefits and best practices:
- Provide free menstrual products in employee and customer restrooms.
- Ensure no penalty for bathroom breaks, especially for hourly employees.
- Provide educational resources and information about menstruation and menopause: This includes basic menstrual literacy, education about period poverty, and perspective on the myriad ways periods impact girls’ education, women’s rights, and gender equity.
- Fund global awareness programs. Such investments enable girls to stay in school and women to work. Eliminating barriers posed by menstruation can have a massive impact on global GDPs.
- Support menstruation, menopause, and reproductive justice nonprofit organizations that serve marginalized communities here at home and globally.
- Understand the laws in states where you do business and make menstrual equity part of your public policy commitment. This includes advocating for medically accurate reproductive, sexual, and menstrual education in schools; publicly funded and freely accessible menstrual products; elimination of the “tampon tax”; and protection from menstrual surveillance and data sharing. Use your connections with business leaders and lawmakers to press for local, state and federal reforms.
In addition, technology companies and media platforms should cease censoring or restricting menstrual content, including ads and social media posts. They ought also refrain from any forms of menstrual surveillance, including sharing with authorities period-related data entered into apps or shared on social media. This principle applies more broadly to all HR and employee confidentiality matters as well.
“Laws like the ‘Don’t Say Period’ bill are designed to entrap women into not knowing about their menstrual health, not feeling comfortable speaking about their menstrual health, or to persecute them for managing their reproductive health,” says Desai. “We have just begun to make progress discussing women’s health around menstruation, thanks to period management tools, period underwear, menstrual cups, etc. But we are basically shoving all this progress back in the closet, putting the mental and physical health of young girls at risk again. We need everyone in this country to stand firm against laws that prevent our young people from learning about their bodies.”