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May 15, 2022

New Jersey bill would provide menstrual products to all students in middle and high schools

Democrats in the state legislature have introduced nearly two dozen 'menstrual equity' bills this year, advancing one to the state Senate

Government Menstruation
New Jersey Menstrual Equity Josefin/Unsplash

A bill to provide free menstrual products in all New Jersey middle and high schools advanced out of a Senate Committee earlier this month. The legislation is one of nearly two dozen 'menstrual equity' bills introduced in the state legislature since the beginning of the year.

New Jersey could provide menstrual hygiene products in all middle and high schools, as a bill to expand menstrual equity advanced out of the state Senate Education Committee earlier this month. The bill is one of nearly two dozen introduced by Democrats in the state legislature dealing with improving access and protections for people who menstruate. 

The bill would require all schools that have students in grades 6 through 12 have tampons and sanitary pads in all school bathrooms available for students free of charge. Any costs associated with the supply of products would be a responsibility of the state. 

In particular, the bill is meant to help low-income students access menstrual hygiene products at no charge, enabling them to quickly return to class time without any disturbances, and without feeling embarrassed by menstruation. The original version of the bill was introduced and passed out of the Senate Education Committee in 2020, but failed to be called for a vote among the whole state Senate. 

"No child should miss valuable class time due to lack of access to menstrual products," said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz. "This legislation will keep students in the classroom by making supplies readily available to those who need them. We must do all that we can to provide equitable education opportunities across the state and this policy will bring us one step closer to that goal." 

The bill passed out of committee on May 9 with a 3-2 vote and a favorable recommendation. However, the advancement did not receive a recommendation from some Republican members of the state Senate, who drew criticisms of the language used in the bill. 

State Sen. Michael Doherty, who represents portions of Somerset and Hunterdon counties, is a member of the Senate Education Committee and proposed an amendment to the bill that would specify that menstrual products would only be required in girls bathrooms. Currently, the bill requires all bathrooms to include direct access to products. 

"It's absolutely nuts that nobody could tell us in committee (today) if the proposed bill applies only to girls' bathrooms," Doherty said. "It would be completely and utterly ridiculous to force New Jersey schools to make tampons and sanitary napkins available in boys' bathrooms. It would be an immense waste of money and is almost certain to lead to vandalism that could be quite costly to repair." 

Equality, Period, an advocacy coalition in New Jersey, noted in its explanation of the bill that if passed, free menstrual products would be provided in female and gender neutral bathrooms in New Jersey schools. The organization also mentions that the state Office of Legislative Services estimates the initial cost to implement the program would be $450,000 to $900,000 in the first year, with an additional $150,000 to $300,000 in each subsequent year. 

A 2021 study commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD found that 23% of students have struggled to afford period products, with 16% choosing to buy menstrual supplies over buying food. This is most common among low-income, Latinx communities. 

59% of students say they never find period products in school bathrooms, while 62% say they never find products in other public bathrooms. 70% of the students surveyed said that their school environment makes them self-conscious about their period, perpetuating menstruation as something that should be kept hidden.

The bill is one of nearly two dozen introduced in the New Jersey state legislature since January to further "menstrual equity" in the state. Of them, Democratic lawmakers like Ruiz, Sen. Vin Gopal, Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain and others have made an attempt to increase access to menstrual supplies and education about menstruation across the state. 

Some measures would require menstrual products to list ingredients on its packaging. Another would push for the Department of Human Services to institute a pilot program covering menstrual hygiene products under Medicaid and other state health insurance plans. 

Some legislation seeks to advertise free menstrual products or require state agencies to enter into bulk purchasing agreements for hygiene supplies.

Some would require schools to allow excused absences for students experiencing symptoms of menstrual disorders, and establish a Women's Health Screening Program to regularly screen for endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. 

"When men go to a bathroom, they have all the things that they need to meet their needs, whether it's toilet paper, soap, some kind of way to dry their hands," Anjali Mehrotra, head of the National Organization for Women of New Jersey and Equality, Period, told the New Jersey Monitor. "So why don't women? It's about health, it's about access, and it's about really making sure that quality, affordable products are available for everyone." 

Equality, Period is a coalition of New Jersey organizations and advocates working to end period shame and stigma. Partners include Cherry Hill Women's Center, South Jersey NOW - Alice Paul Chapter, Jersey Gay Pride and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.  

The bill — plus an identical bill in the state Assembly — will be up for a further vote within the coming weeks.