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Annie Wang remembers the panic she felt being a freshman in a 500-person chemistry class at UC Davis when her period arrived—and she didn’t have a tampon or pad. There was nowhere nearby to go, and leaving to find something meant missing the class.

So she tried to focus on the lecture instead.

“I stayed in my seat and prayed it would not be too bad. When I got up, I had left a mark on UC Davis in a very bold way,” she said. “It was a very embarrassing moment for me.”

She knew she couldn’t be the only one in this predicament—that “a lot of my classmates had experienced similar situations where they were in class or going to class and suddenly got their period and were not able to go to class or had to scramble,” she said.

Now she’s one of many student activists, advocates, experts and officials working toward what they call “menstrual equity.” In California, that means exempting period products from the state sales tax and ensuring that tampons and pads are provided as freely as toilet paper in public schools and universities, government buildings and prisons.

It’s part of a global movement—partially funded by feminine-hygiene product manufacturers—to bring periods into the consideration of mainstream policymakers. A documentary about “period poverty”—the reality that some women miss work and some girls miss school because of cultural taboos or because they can’t afford period products—won an Oscar this year. Already in California, public schools in low-income areas are required to provide free period products, and college students are petitioning for free products in state universities. And an ongoing state Superior Court case claims the state is violating the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause by taxing the sales of period products, arguing that tampons and pads are not luxuries.

But the most closely watched effort is under way in the state Capitol, where lawmakers expect to advance a bill to end that sales tax.

A few years back, there were a lot of eye rolls and snickers when Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens carried such a bill. Embracing the novelty of it all, she dubbed herself “Tampon Queen” and propped a huge pad and tampon in her office window.

“It allowed a conversation to happen that was more than a tax—it’s about menstrual equity and our biology,” she said.

Her bill cleared the Legislature in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it should have been addressed within the state budget and that “tax breaks are the same thing as new spending.” That prompted a tweet retort from Garcia:

@JerryBrownGov please mansplain why it’s ok to balance the budget on women's backs? He vetoed #AB1561, the unfair #tampontax continues. — Cristina Garcia (@AsmGarcia) September 13, 2016

With a new governor in place, she’s at it again. This time, her colleagues have been so eager to back her Assembly Bill 31 that it has more co-authors than any other this session. Last time, she said, “I had to beg them to join me.” This bill is expected to garner Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

But Jerry Brown isn’t alone. Editorials in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have contended that it’s unwise to carve out exemptions from the state sales tax in such a random fashion—especially when the state taxes items equally as essential, such as toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste. The California Tax Reform Association criticized the bill for drawing a line new to the state sales tax: “gender necessity. … The problem with drawing such a line is that many possibilities for exemption follow the logic of gender specificity. Clothing, cosmetics, over-the-counter and pharmaceuticals are all examples of products that can be construed as both gender-based and necessary,” the association noted.

And the California State Association of Counties also opposes the idea. “After the past 30 years of changes to sales and use tax collections, counties have come to depend on those revenues to balance their budgets and specifically offset the costs of providing realigned services, including criminal justice, health, mental health and social services,” the association wrote.

Garcia countered: “I respect the need for California to be fiscally sound, but the state budget should not be balanced by a tax of a person’s uterus. The same goes for local governments; our tax codes should be gender neutral.”

A legislative analysis said the bill, if enacted, would cost the state of California $9 million in lost revenue in the first year and $19 million in the second year.

To be clear, there is not an extra tax on tampons and pads. But unlike food and medicine, they are not exempt from California sales tax, because the state considers them not necessities, but luxuries.

Thus far, some other states—including New York, Florida, Connecticut and Nevada—and the District of Columbia have banned sales taxes on period products. Across the globe, Canada, India and Australia have long since eliminated the tax, and a battle is underway to end it in the United Kingdom.

“Today, the most progressive state in the union is behind the curve in providing a gender-neutral tax code that doesn’t profit off of a woman’s basic biological functions,” Garcia said.

Menstruation is about equity and engagement as much as it is about health, said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who co-founded Period Equity, a group that is behind the tampon-tax campaigns nationwide. It produced a glitzy ad that has model and actress Amber Rose fondling a bezel-set diamond pendant from which a bejeweled locket contains a tampon, asking: “Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?” The ad’s kicker: “Tell the government where to stick this tax.”

“The taxes and the challenges of access are unfair and discriminatory toward women,” said Weiss-Wolf. “It’s an enormous distraction and, at worst, a hindrance to being fully present.”

At the age of 16, Nadya Okamato founded PERIOD., The Menstrual Movement, a nonprofit that donates products and works on menstrual policy and education with 350 chapters across the world.

“The tampon tax is not the issue that will solve period poverty, but it sends a message that menstrual hygiene is necessary and it’s a right,” said Okamato. “It’s something that happens to the majority of the global population for an average of 40 years of life, and it makes human life possible. It’s not something that should be treated with shame and stigma; it should be normalized.”

The group, celebrities and a period-products company recently co-signed a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for free products at all schools.

Some critics on social media, however, warn that once the government makes products available at no charge, costs to taxpayers could escalate, because some people who can easily afford to buy their own tampons and pads will instead avail themselves of the free ones.

“This not about whether I can afford it,” Garcia said, noting that she’s asked for free products to be available in state Capitol bathrooms. “It’s about how my biology does not behave in an expected matter. If I’m tracking down period products, I’m missing out on work.”

After Wang’s embarrassing moment at school, she started a campus chapter of PERIOD., which is petitioning the UC Davis administration to provide free products in all campus bathrooms. UC approved and funded a pilot program to provide free products, stocked by student volunteers, in up to 13 campus bathrooms.

The chapter surveyed students and reported that 52 percent of student respondents said they missed class or work in the last school year, because they could not access a tampon or pad.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

There is a stigma that often comes from women talking about menstruation publicly. And the shame happens in many ways.

Last year, the online publication Jezebel published an article titled called “What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You Are Shunned.” It profiled the life of a 16-year-old girl in Western Nepal named Radha, who, like all the other women in her village, could “not enter her house or eat anything but boiled rice” while she was menstruating. Radha was not allowed to touch other people during her menstruation cycle, because she’d “pollute them” and perhaps make them sick.

She wasn't allowed to sleep in her own house. She must join the rest of the women in the village who happen to be menstruating that week in a tiny shed far away from the village.

The Western world claims to be more progressive, yet even here, there are many forms of shaming menstruating. Consider the way in which menstrual products are usually commercialized and advertized in “stylish,” cool, colorful containers. It sends a message to women: If they own the cool, colorful products, that will lessen the shame that comes from being a human woman with a healthy, working body.

For me, as a young girl raised locally, it always seemed like a periods were taboo subject. The community I grew up in (Mecca, located on the east side of the Coachella Valley) is mostly Latino/Hispanic, and parts of that culture have deeply rooted patriarchal and misogynistic ideas about what it is to be Latina; girls internalize these ideas as they grow up. Adding to the taboo is the fact that women and girls in the 21st century grow up within a highly sexualized culture, further internalizing the idea that their bodies are objects for men to lust over—with health not even being prioritized.

According to the zine Menstruation Sensation by Alyssa Beers, in the U.S. alone, there are 73 million menstruating women right now. So why can't we talk about it without everyone cringing or crying out, “Gross!”

From 4 to 6:30 p.m. this Friday, Jan. 23, we’re holding an event at Raices Cultura, located at 1494 Sixth St., in Coachella. This event will include a discussion of alternative menstrual products that are not talked about in the mainstream media. These alternative menstrual products are also not as available in stores as tampons and sanitary pads—yet the benefits of using reusable menstrual products are huge.

Tampon applicators and disposable pads are made of oil-based polyethylene plastics. They just add to the country’s dependency on oil companies, and they contribute to the thinning of the ozone layer while they are being fabricated. The Menstruation Sensation zine states that in 1999, 1.4 million pads, 2.4 million tampons and 700,000 panty liners were disposed of daily. Annually, more than 12 billion tampons and napkins are disposed of. And we all know climate change isn't a made-up thing.

If that isn't enough for you to consider looking into reusable menstrual products, then look into TSS (toxic shock syndrome), which can come from using tampons. Men and children have also been known to been affected by it.

There’s one more reason to like reusable menstrual products: They save you a lot of money. Who doesn't like saving money?

During the event, two other presenters and I will be discussing and presenting the different types of menstrual products, where to get them, and even how to make them yourselves.

The youngest presenter, Cynthia Portillo, is 17 and a filmmaker. “We can improve so much just by knowing how and why our body works,” she says, which is true—a lot of women don't seem to fully understand their body and often don’t want to understand their body, due to fat-shaming, cat-calling, slut-shaming and, of course, menstruation stigma.

It'll be a safe space for girls and women to share, learn and converse about their bodies and health. No shaming will be allowed! If men want to join, that's also cool, but they must come willing to learn and engage in the conversation in a mature, non-sexist way. 

For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.

Published in Community Voices