Period poverty happens when someone can’t afford menstrual hygiene products, and New Jersey lawmakers hope to address the issue with new legislation. The New Jersey General Assembly recently passed eight bills focusing on women’s access to menstrual hygiene products and education. The legislation includes a state-run Menstrual Hygiene Products Program, a resolution urging Congress to allow WIC, SNAP, and Medicaid to pay for period products, and a program for homeless New Jerseyans. It also establishes “Period Poverty Awareness Week” in May. Assemblywomen Lisa Swain (D-Bergen) and Shanqiue Speight (D-Essex) sponsored some of the bills. “I grew up in an era where, if you got your period, you don’t talk about it,” Speight said. “You wrap up the pad and throw it in the garbage. Nobody else should know. Especially in my culture.” According to Alliance for Period Supplies, a study published in 2021 found 23% of Black people and 24% of Latina people with periods struggle with affording menstrual products between 2020-2021. Speight, who is Black, said she has worked on the issue for the last couple of years after recognizing that affordability played a part in having access to menstrual hygiene products for many teens in her district. She said she also hosts events in her district to bring awareness to menstrual health equity and period poverty.
“One of the biggest things was affordability,” Speight said. “Often, with the economy rising, you have parents trying to see if they’re gonna buy pads or if they’re gonna buy food.”
According to the Alliance for Period Supplies, almost 40% of low-income women have missed work or school because they could not access period supplies. Speight said that students miss school for various reasons — inability to afford period products, too heavy flow, or extreme cramps. Speight said she wants to pass legislation that allows students to be excused for menstrual disorders. She also wants the state to teach students more about menstrual health. “Right now, I really don’t think they teach anything,” Speight said. “I can’t remember anyone really teaching me about it.” Speight’s Chief of Staff, Maxilia Desir, shared her story about menstrual health. Desir said she missed school due to cramps when she was 17. She said she had experienced extreme pain since her first menstrual cycle. “I had gone to the [emergency room] like I always did, and they couldn’t find out what was wrong with me. They were like, ‘maybe it’s just painful cramps’ or whatever,” Desir said. Desir and her mom searched for options to help ease her pain. “One of the nurses and the doctor in the room mentioned I could always have a hysterectomy,” Desir said. At the time, Desir was unsure of what a hysterectomy meant. A hysterectomy is a surgical process to remove the uterus. Ultimately, she decided against it. “I advocated for myself at a young age. I went to a lot of doctors,” Desir said. Advocates said improved menstrual health education could help people make more informed health decisions. Some advocates also said addressing menstrual health equity can help ease the state’s maternal mortality crisis, especially in communities of color. Black women in New Jersey are seven times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, according to WHYY. “Addressing menstrual equity goes hand-in-hand with the need to destigmatize women’s bodies,” Swain said.
The State Senate approved the package at committee hearings this week.
This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.