Feb 6, 2024 - News

Massachusetts schools, jails slowly expand access to menstrual products

Illustration of five dollar signs across five days on a calendar.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Free tampons are popping up in public libraries, schools and jails in Massachusetts as advocates push for equitable menstrual access.

Why it matters: Menstrual products, which are no longer taxed in 30 states, are one of several necessities that low-income residents may struggle to get, advocates say.

What's happening: Several public school districts have started offering free menstrual products in recent years, partly in response to student activism.

  • They're available at schools in at least a dozen communities, including Boston, Brookline, Somerville and Medford, per a report from Mass NOW, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women.
  • Boston launched an initiative last year to offer free products and educational programs at six Boston Public Library branches.
  • Suffolk and Middlesex county jails say they have policies ensuring access to free menstrual products, says Sasha Goodfriend, executive director of Mass NOW.

Plus: A bill in the State House proposes making free menstrual products available at public schools, shelters and correctional facilities.

What they're saying: "We expect toilet paper and soap in bathrooms, and we don't even ask the question, 'How much does toilet paper cost?' because it's a basic need," Goodfriend said.

  • "The same framework should be applied for menstrual products."

Zoom in: A 2019 report said Massachusetts' six correctional facilities for women reported providing free menstrual products, but failed to distribute them weekly, as is done with toilet paper and soap.

  • Many incarcerated people bought them from the commissary, sometimes spending $10 for tampons, per the report by Mass NOW and the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition.

The big picture: Two dozen states provide free menstrual products in correctional facilities, while 19 states and Washington, D.C. have laws making schools provide free products.

Yes, but: It's not just about free access, but also access to safe products, Goodfriend says.

  • The FDA doesn't regulate menstrual products, meaning companies don't have to disclose all of their ingredients.
  • After New York passed a law making companies disclose those ingredients, new labels revealed they may contain carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and allergens, PBS reported.

What's next: Advocates are pushing for House lawmakers to approve the menstrual access bill after the Senate unanimously approved it in the fall.

  • Rep. Jay Livingstone, who filed the House bill, said the annual cost was estimated years ago at around $6 million.
  • Livingstone said he's hopeful the bill can move forward, calling it consistent with Speaker Ron Mariano's values.
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