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‘They’re as necessary as toilet paper’: New York City Council approves free tampon program

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On Tuesday, in a crowded room in New York City, council member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland whipped out a small, wrapped tampon and waved it in the air.

She did not sneak it from her purse or secretly shove it up her shirt sleeve. She was not on her way to the bathroom. The lawmaker was trying to make a point, and this tampon was her prop.

“They’re as necessary as toilet paper,” she said.

It was a defiant act against period stigma and a taboo Ferreras-Copeland has been fighting against in her quest for what she calls menstrual equity. On Tuesday, after months of crusading and a colorful public discussion, she led the New York City Council toward a historic decision.

In a 49-0 vote, the council approved a measure that would make New York City the first in the United States to give all women in public schools, prisons and homeless shelters access to feminine hygiene products — free of charge.

The sudden controversy around the cost of tampons

“For students who will no longer miss class because they do not have a pad or tampon to mothers at shelters and women in prison who will have access to these critical yet often overlooked products, this package makes our city a more fair place,” Ferreras-Copeland said in a council statement.

Her proposal, co-sponsored in part by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and members Ydanis Rodriguez and Daniel Dromm, would make pads and tampons freely available for the 300,000 schoolgirls in New York City and 23,000 women in public homeless shelters, reported the Associated Press. In correctional institutions, women are provided a limited supply of generic hygiene products, but advocates say that under current regulations, the options are at times scarce, inadequate and dehumanizing. This legislative package would change that, adding the force of law to preexisting standards.

The measure would provide an estimated 2 million tampons and 3.5 million pads each year, just to homeless shelters, reported AP. It will take up about $2.5 million annually in the city’s $82 billion budget.

The bill awaits Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature, which is expected.

After the unanimous vote, de Blasio offered his support for the movement on Twitter and Facebook.

The New York City Council’s decision comes amid a national conversation about the high cost of menstrual products, what some advocates call a “womanhood penalty.”

Most U.S. states consider period pads and tampons nonessential items and tax them accordingly. Earlier this year, outrage bubbled online and elsewhere over what critics called a discriminatory “tampon tax.”

In an interview this year with vlogger Ingrid Nilsen on YouTube, President Obama lambasted the high cost of menstrual products.

“I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” Obama said. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

A month ago, New York state lawmakers voted to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, becoming the sixth state to do so.

Most U.S. women pay a so-called "tampon tax," which refers to a tax on feminine products. A California assemblywoman has joined a global movement to eliminate the tax, which supporters call unfair. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/TWP, Photo: Chris Hondros/TWP)

The package approved Tuesday was Ferreras-Copeland’s most recent effort to bring menstrual equity to the city. At the beginning of 2016, she spearheaded a pilot program that brought free pads and tampons to female students in 25 public high schools in Queens and the Bronx.

In support of the measure spreading to all public schools, de Blasio posted a video to Facebook. It read: “So they can focus on their 6th-period test, instead of their period. Girls shouldn’t have to miss class because of their period.”

In the post, he also quoted Ferreras-Copeland:

“Because tampons and pads aren’t luxuries — they’re necessities. As Ferreras-Copeland put it: ‘A young girl should not have to tell her teacher, to then tell her counselor, to then be sent to the nurse’s office, to then be given a pad to then go back to the bathroom while a boy is already taking his exam in his classroom.’ ”

In an announcement on the steps of city hall Tuesday, with a flock of women’s health advocates standing behind her, Ferreras-Copeland praised the legislation, which is just as much about eliminating stigma as it is about providing free access to health products.

“This package is remarkable,” Ferreras-Copeland told the crowd, according to the Huffington Post. “It is the only one of its kind, and it says periods are powerful.”