Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer remembers walking into a bathroom during her graduate studies years ago at Harvard University and seeing a basket of menstrual products on the sink counter.
“I just felt like, wow, this is luxurious! They’re just really available, and this is the height of luxury!” she said, laughing. “But when you think about it, that’s absurd — that something needed by so many women would seem like a luxury, rather than just a basic, essential product that should be provided because so many need it.”
Now, Jaffer is in a position to do something about it. The Democrat joined several lawmakers who introduced a bevy of bills about menstruation — 24 just since the current legislative session started in January, twice the number of menstrual health bills in the last two-year session.
Lawmakers say they aim to improve menstrual health, increase access to a pricey personal product, and overturn a taboo that persists around periods.
“This is not a niche issue. This is an issue that faces more than half of our population,” Jaffer said. “We need to start taking women’s health issues out of the shadows.”
Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Essex), who introduced several of these measures, agreed: “Sanitary pads are a necessity, just like toilet tissue.”
This is an equality issue, said Anjali Mehrotra, who heads the National Organization for Women of New Jersey and recently organized a coalition of community groups called Equality, Period to advocate for “menstrual equity.”
“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. So why don’t women?” Mehrotra said. “It’s about health, it’s about access, and it’s about really making sure that quality, affordable products are available for everyone.”
Lawmakers’ increased interest in menstrual health seems less surprising when you consider the uptick in female legislators elected last year, which helped diversify the mostly white, male Legislature. Four new Assemblywomen — Jaffer, Shama Haider (D-Bergen), and Monmouth County Republicans Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno — have signed on as sponsors to the various bills.
“This is a perfect example of why representation matters,” Jaffer said. “We all draw from our experiences and from our immediate communities, so when we have people from diverse backgrounds and more women in government and policy, we’re able to address the needs of our community and our constituents much better.”
Mehrotra believes the pandemic piqued interest in the issue too, because it exposed the struggles many New Jerseyans face in affording even basic necessities. She sees menstrual equity as a nonpartisan issue that men should also care about.
“These are some basic needs that are not being met for New Jerseyans, and we need to address them,” she said.
Tackling period poverty
Nationally, more than 22 million people can’t afford menstrual products, a trend known as “period poverty,” according to Equality, Period.
Speight knows that struggle firsthand. When she was a child, she, her mother, and her three siblings lost their home in a fire and spent two years homeless.
“I remember living in the YMCA. My mother was barely able to buy clothes for herself, let alone buy clothes for us. So sanitary pads had to be the last thing on her mind,” she said.
Speight represents parts of Newark, where affordability is an issue for many residents. She has organized collections of menstrual products to distribute to people who can’t afford them. At a “period packing party” later this month, she and her volunteers expect to pack 4,000 personal hygiene bags they will distribute to schools and shelters to cover recipients’ menstrual needs through the summer.
Her legislation expands upon that work, with some bills focused on schools, where students without adequate access to menstrual products miss class and risk infection and emotional anxiety.
She has introduced measures that would require public schools and colleges and universities to provide menstrual products in all buildings; require schools to teach menstrual health and hygiene; and allow students with a menstrual disorder to attend school remotely or have their absences excused.
Measures introduced by some of her colleagues would provide free feminine hygiene products to people who get public assistance and facilitate the state buying menstrual products in bulk.
Several bills target menstrual health and would require doctors to screen patients for endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and toxic shock syndrome. Others would create a menstrual health public awareness campaign and require ingredients to be listed on the packaging of menstrual products.
And some even seek not only to smash the stigma around menstruation, but to celebrate it. A Speight resolution would declare May 17 as Menstrual Empowerment Day. Under another from Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), May 28 would be Menstrual Equity Day.
Mehrotra applauded the bills, even as she acknowledged New Jersey is “not on the cutting edge” on supporting menstrual health. Sixteen states already have passed legislation to put free menstrual products in schools, she added.
“These are topics that have been largely ignored in the legislative space. So we’re happy to see that the legislators are listening to their constituents and listening to the need out there,” she said. “We definitely feel like there is a momentum and we’re going to see some of these bills pass.”