From left, Ramsey Warner, Isabel Buescher and Ariyanna Ghala, all 14, started a free period pantry to help those who can't afford pads and tampons in Vienna, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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When Ariyanna Ghala, 14, was shopping with her mom, she noticed how expensive a box of pads were and thought there must be something she could do to help people who couldn’t afford them.

The teen in Vienna, Va., talked to her friends Ramsey Warner and Isabel Buescher, both 14, and the three of them got to work. They researched the issue, learning how many states still tax these products. They heard about “period poverty” — unequal access to menstrual hygiene. They read stories about girls who miss school because they lack pads and tampons, and they learned about adults who are unable to afford these essential products.

If people needed pads and tampons, Ghala and her friends thought, then they could find a way to provide them.

In September, they launched their free period pantry outside a church in Vienna, filling the two-foot wide, one-foot deep and 2.5-foot tall wooden container they constructed with donated pads and tampons.

“We are girls and we can totally understand. That’s honestly awful that people wouldn’t have [period products],” Ghala said. “These are so important, so vital.”

The girls, all James Madison High School students, are part of a growing chorus of advocates demanding menstrual equity, said Laura Strausfeld, founder and executive director of Period Law.

Advocates like Strausfeld have used lawsuits and public awareness campaigns to convince policymakers to drop the sales tax on these items as well as provide them in schools, jails, shelters and public spaces. They have long pushed to remove any stigma around periods and increase the availability of pads, tampons and any other products needed to meet basic hygiene, especially for those who are low-wage or are otherwise unable to access this care.

“It’s reaching a tipping point,” Strausfeld said, adding that it’s encouraging to see the way young people are joining the movement. “They see a need and they’re not, for whatever reason, afraid of talking about periods.”

Scotland became the first nation to offer period products in public spaces, including community centers, pharmacies and youth clubs, in August following legislation initially approved by lawmakers in 2020. New Zealand began offering free menstrual products to schools nationwide in 2021.

In the United States, 18 states and D.C. have passed legislation ensuring students have access to free period products in school; more than 20 states charge sales tax on period products, according to the advocacy group Alliance for Period Supplies. The Justice Department agreed in 2017 to provide incarcerated women with menstrual products at no cost.

Jennifer Gaines, the program director of the Alliance for Period Supplies, a program of the National Diaper Bank Network, said in a “perfect world” period products would be available “everywhere,” similar to the expectation in this country that toilet paper is provided in restrooms.

During the pandemic, Congress recognized how essential menstrual products are, including provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that allowed people to purchase menstrual products with pretax dollars from health savings and flexible spending accounts.

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Still, period products are not eligible to be purchased under benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps. And prices for tampons and pads also increased during a tampon shortage this year, straining shoppers during historical inflation that was already lifting the cost of gas, groceries and other essentials.

“If your period is going to come and you need a pad or a tampon, I am so heartened that kids like this are thinking about that,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at the New York University School of Law and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity. “And ensuring that this is not a need that goes unmet for people who are in those urgent in circumstances.”

The Vienna period pantry, located outside the Emmaus United Church of Christ on Maple Avenue, and next to a food pantry, has been stocked for months now. The teens have been stocking the pantry with donations, and others seem to be adding products themselves, too. The girls hope this support continues, said Heather Buescher, Isabel’s mom.

The pantry has been a project for their Girl Scout Troop 6833, earning the girls the Silver Award, the highest award a Girl Scout Cadette can earn, according to Kelli Naughton, the troop’s adult guide. The requirements include spending 50 hours on a project that has a sustainable impact on the community.

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“We already knew that these products were expensive, but we’re kind of just like taught that’s just how it was,” Ramsey said. “When you start thinking about how other people can’t have that mind-set of, ‘That’s just how it is,’ because they can’t afford it, it’s really unfair.”

The teenagers are brainstorming ways to keep the pantry running, including considering turning this effort into a nonprofit.

“It makes me feel good that we’ve been able to help people,” Isabel said.

When setting up the pantry, the girls painted the lumber pink and decorated it with a quote from Helen Keller that captured the role they hoped the pantry would play in their community: “Alone, we can do so little: together, we can do so much.”