Men and boys can walk into any public bathroom and access all the hygiene supplies they need: soap, toilet paper, paper towels.

Women and girls cannot. Which stands as a reminder that “public” spaces don’t necessarily welcome everyone.

“Two-thirds of [U.S.] women surveyed did not have the resources to buy menstrual hygiene products at some point during the last year,” according to a 2019 survey, “and one-fifth of respondents struggle to afford period products on a monthly basis. During these times, they may not feel able to leave their homes, go to work, or participate in civic life.”

In other words, many women and girls can’t afford tampons or pads, and they often stay home as a result. This “period poverty” impacts their income and education.

Last week, Denver Public Schools gave the almost 80,000 students in their school system access to tampons and pads for free. The cost amounts to a rounding error; they estimate it will cost an additional $30,000 in a billion dollar budget.

“Students were right,” Denver Public Schools Board Director Tay Anderson told the Denver Post. “We were neglecting their health. We were neglecting them as individuals and we have to do better. This shouldn’t be something that our students lose classroom minutes for.”

At the end of 2020, Scotland enacted a bill — the first in the world — that requires local authorities to ensure that period products are generally obtainable free of charge. Schools and colleges must ensure period products are freely available to students, and designated public places must also make the products available.

Here in Teton County the Board of County Commissioners recently provided direction to staff to outfit restrooms with dispensers in a variety of publicly accessible buildings, including the courthouse, county administration building, general services building, Public Health and the jail.

“This is a tangible representation of the idea that women belong in these spaces,” said Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker.

Yet there isn’t a policy prescription in Wyoming to ensure widespread access to essential hygiene items like period products. The latest Wyoming effort to repeal the tax on menstrual products failed last month. The Essential Health Product Dignity Act (Senate File 0027) contained a provision that would have ended the so-called “tampon tax,” the sales tax imposed on period products. The bill that marked an important step toward leveling the playing field for women across the state by addressing the real impacts of period poverty.

In the absence of policy we have philanthropy. A dozen volunteers started raising awareness about and funds to address period poverty about two years ago. A few key organizations — St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Jackson Cupboard and St. John’s Health — backed their launch. The “Tampon Team” ensures that period products are available at nearly two dozen locations around Teton County, with additional sites in Fremont County and Teton County, Idaho.

They also work with Teton County School District No. 1 so that girls don’t have to go to the nurse — as though they’re suffering from an illness — for basic hygiene items. Each bathroom is equipped with baskets of supplies. The Tampon Team makes sure they stay fully stocked.

The Period Project has been incredibly effective in a short time with limited resources. But it could have even more impact if and when we enact policy to support its work.

That speaks to the difference between philanthropy and policy, charity and justice. Philanthropy might enable a few people, or even an entire (small) community like ours, to benefit. Policy expands those benefits to everyone.

We are long overdue to make the shift from philanthropy to policy.

Jennifer M. Simon founded the Wyoming Women’s Action Network and is a senior policy advisor to the Equality State Policy Center. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School. She can be reached via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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