Hawaii lawmakers are expected to be asked — for the third year in a row — to approve a measure that would provide free menstrual products in public schools.
The continued effort to resolve what activists call menstrual inequity or period poverty follows a survey of 871 students by the nonprofit Ma‘i Movement Hawaii that found 8 out of 10 students face difficulties getting menstrual products, with 13% missing at least one day of school due to the lack of access.
“In reality it’s a health issue,” said Sen. Laura Acasio, a Hilo lawmaker who has been championing the issue. “It doesn’t make people blink an eye to fund (medical supplies for sports), yet when we talk about things like menstrual equity, there’s so much pushback.”
In 2020, Rep. Amy Perruso introduced House Bill 2430 that would require the Department of Education to make menstrual products available to students for free on public secondary school campuses and eliminate the “tampon tax,” exempting products such as pads, tampons and panty liners from Hawaii’s general excise tax.
Sarah Milianta-Laffin, a STEM lab teacher at Ilima Intermediate School who testified with her students in support of HB 2430 in 2020, said in hindsight the bill tried to tackle too much.
“We tried to get rid of the pink tax and supply free pads in public schools in the same bill and it was just too much,” she said.
Last year Acasio introduced Senate Bill 966. Unlike the previous measure, it focused solely on bringing free menstrual products to public schools. But the bill didn’t pass, something Acasio blamed on budget cuts related to Covid-19.
Acasio said she’s hopeful that a new bill, similar to last year’s, will move.
Other states, including New York, have passed similar measures.
A Very Real Need
Legislation can’t come too soon for some teachers and others involved in the lobbying effort.
A pilot program in six schools conducted by the Ma‘i Movement Hawaii over the past year found that newspapers, socks, folder paper, leaves, rags and toilet paper are some of the materials used by Hawaii students who lacked access to menstrual products.
The program provides free menstrual products on six school campuses — three on Oahu, one on Hawaii island, one on Maui and one on Kauai — for one year, tracking usage, attendance and overall well-being.
Sarah Kern, a seventh grade science teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauai, one of the schools in the pilot program, said she has frequently given her personal supply of products to students.
“I have a male colleague who keeps old jackets in his classroom yearly to give to students if they have an emergency,” she said.
Ma‘i Movement Hawaii co-founder Nikki-Ann Yee said she found that personal accounts alone were not enough to sway lawmakers.
“Menstrual inequity is not a straightforward issue,” she said. “It’s intertwined with so many other societal issues, so it’s a balance of having quantitative data and qualitative — the human side of it.”
In November, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the Ma‘i Movement Hawaii published a report collecting accounts from 361 women, girls, gender non-conforming people and mahu surveyed across the state on their experiences with menstruation.
Half of all respondents in the study reported missing a day of school or work due to menstruation and one in five said they had to prioritize other necessities such as food and electricity over purchasing menstrual products.
Kern, who taught at Waianae high school before her current job, said it’s a slow process getting students to feel comfortable talking about menstruation and detaching shame from needing free products. She said there’s a direct correlation between students in lower socioeconomic households and access to menstrual products.
“If your family is choosing between, ‘Are we going to buy groceries this month to feed everybody?’ or ‘Are we going to buy pads for our teenager?’ Often food is going to win out,” she said.
Gen Z Takes Action
One student taking matters into her own hands is Punahou freshman Austen Kinney. Following in the footsteps of her father who’s a firefighter, she said she wanted to figure out a way to give back to her community and period equity was an area in which she said she could make a difference.
Kinney hosted a menstrual product drive with Punahou school, collecting over 8,000 individual products — 1,700 went to Kalakaua Middle School where she started her first “period pantry.” She’s also established stations in every restroom across Punahou’s high school campus.
“My goal by the time I graduate high school is to have free period products in every bathroom at every school — no matter if it’s public or private — because every person that has a period, every menstruator, deserves to have a pad because it’s a basic human need,” she said.
Kinney said she has an upcoming drive for Dole Middle School and also has an Amazon wishlist set up where people can order menstrual products to be sent directly to her home as a donation.
“People don’t want to talk about it because there’s definitely stigma around periods being shameful, but I think we need to recognize that every woman has a period — something that more than half our population deals with — so it’s something that should absolutely be talked about more.”
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Lauren Teruya was a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California.