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Menstrual Equity Advocates Say Sales Tax, School Changes Still Needed

Governor Ralph Northam will sign a bill Tuesday aimed at making feminine hygiene products more available in prisons and jails in Virginia. But advocates for menstrual equity say much more needs to be done.

The Guest House in Alexandria is a place where women who are recently out of jail stay until they can get back on their feet. The garage out back is full of donations: Clothing, furniture, household items, all of which need to be organized.

“You sort it all out by size, and then you put it into bags and then you mark the bags as what size,” says Alexandria Brown.  She's helping some of the women from Guest House organize all this stuff and take it to a church across the street. Guest House is helping her get her life together after spending time in and out of two different jails in Virginia.

Brown says her time behind bars was rough, especially when she was menstruating “You’re making me feel like I’m even more of a dog because you won’t even give me the little things that I need.”

Little things like tampons. In the jails that she was in women were given two state-issue menstrual pads every 24 hours. But no tampons. “It means a lot if you can make a tampon because everybody has a period,” Brown says.

So she learned a special skill behind bars, making tampons out of menstrual pads. Talk to women who spend time behind bars in Virginia, and you’ll realize the lack of access to feminine hygiene products has created a black market of sorts.

“I would barter potato chips and a candy bar for somebody to make me ten tampons at a time,” says Michelle Abercrombie, who spent time at the Williamsburg jail. “Rather than being able to go buy a box of Tampax, take a shower and keep on moving, there’s a lot of people’s hands touching it, there’s giving up food I basically lived on.”

Some women say they had to show used menstrual pads to prove they needed more. Other says the guards were simply unwilling to help them no matter what. And it’s stories like these that prompted Democratic Delegate Kaye Cory of Fairfax County to introduce a bill to push jails and prisons to make feminine hygiene products are available to all inmates at no cost. The bill mandates the Department of Corrections come up with a plan, and she believes the debate over the bill was the ultimate victory. “The regional jails and the Department of Corrections have now announced that they are going to provide feminine hygiene menstrual products to women at no cost,” Cory says.

But advocates for menstrual equity say this is only the first step. Freshman Democratic Delegate Debra Rodman of Henrico County wants to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products. “You know toilet paper is taxed and other necessities are taxed. So there’s that argument," Rodman admits. "But on the other hand, menstrual products are considered medical devices. So just like Rogaine or other products that you would buy that are tax free,  menstrual products are also something that I believe that should be tax free.”

But lawmakers were not willing to take the $5 million hit to the budget. And they were also not willing to mandate that middle schools and high schools install dispensers in girls restrooms to make these products available to students. Democratic Delegate Mark Keam of Fairfax County says this is a necessity. “They can’t study, and they can’t focus on what’s happening in the classrooms. This is a problem that boys will never have to worry about. And, in fact, boys may snicker and joke about it. But the reality is that these are serious psychological as well as physical problems that girls have to deal with,” Keam says.

Advocates for getting rid of the sales tax on these products and mandating that schools provide them say they’ll be back in Richmond next year continuing the fight.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.