BOSTON – Public schools, prisons and homeless shelters would be required to provide free menstrual hygiene products under plans being considered on Beacon Hill.

A proposal recently passed by the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee requires middle and high schools to stock pads and tampons in female and gender-neutral restrooms. School districts would pay for the products.

Another proposal, approved the Legislature’s Joint Public Health Committee last month, would also require the products in female prisons and homeless shelters.

Supporters say hygiene products are basic necessities, and ensuring easy access prevents stigma and disruptions to education and work.

“Access to menstrual products is an issue of dignity and equity,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.

Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, a vice-chairwoman of the education committee, said schools should be required to stock the products as a matter of basic hygiene.

“Schools should treat these items no differently than they do other bathroom basics such as soap, water and toilet paper, all of which students can already get for free,” she said.

Advocates say those who need but cannot afford the hygiene products often miss work or school as a result.

Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, called access to the products “a key component of sexual health care and a basic necessity.”

“For too long, barriers rooted in stigma have made menstrual products unavailable to young people, people experiencing homelessness, and people who are incarcerated,” she said.

It’s not clear how much the mandate would cost. There is no funding included in either proposal.

The proposals have bipartisan support and more than 70 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, including Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester and Reps. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, Tram Nguyen, D-Andover and Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover.

If they clear the committee review process, they would still require approval by the full House and Senate as well as Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature to become law.

So far, only four states -- California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire -- require public schools to provide menstrual hygiene products.

In Massachusetts, the products are not subject to the state’s 6.25% sales tax. Nonprofits that work in low-income communities make them available at community health centers.

Last year, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh signed a bill requiring the city’s public middle and high schools to stock menstrual products. The city has allocated $100,000 for a pilot program.

In other communities, such as Cambridge and Somerville, students have petitioned for more access to menstrual products in school bathrooms.

Critics say laws requiring their placement are unconstitutional, unfunded mandates that drive up costs for cash strapped school districts.

Nationally advocacy groups have pushed for free menstrual products in all public school restrooms, collecting over 100,000 signatures on a petition to the U.S. Department Education.

Congress is also looking at tackling “period poverty” with the Menstrual Equity for All Act, which would make the products free for girls, the homeless, low-income women and prisoners. While the bill has 86 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives -- including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. -- it hasn’t advanced since being introduced nearly a year ago.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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