Rachel Glantzberg, 16, says one of her first high school lessons was learning how to navigate the "whisper network" of students needing a tampon or a pad at school.
"It almost sounds like a drug deal is taking place, with all the code words and the different terms used that's supposed to make up for the stigma," Glantzberg, a New Jersey high school student, tells TODAY.com.
Only 15 states and Washington, D.C. require free period products to be supplied to students in schools. New Jersey is not one of them.
Recently, Republican lawmakers in Idaho blocked a bill that would have made Idaho the sixteenth state to mandate schools provide period products to students.
Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt took issue with the terms “period poverty” and “menstrual equity” used to describe the inability to access period products. “These are woke terms,” Ehardt said, as reported by the Idaho Statesman.
“What we’re seeing here is a generational misalignment,” Michela Bedard, executive director of PERIOD, a youth-led global advocacy organization, tells TODAY.com.
“Young people want this addressed. They want products in their schools. They’re not afraid of it. They don’t think it’s government overreach," she adds. "They understand that (period products) are basic medical necessities, and the adults who are in positions of power are keeping (free access) from happening.”
TODAY.com reached out to Ehardt for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.
“I’ve had multiple friends who have experiences where they’re taking a test and all the sudden they get their period and they’re totally without any supplies or resources,” Glantzberg says. “It really detracts from learning.”
According to a 2021 national study, 1 in 5 teens say they can’t afford or don't have access to period products.
The same study found that two-thirds of teens say they've "felt stress" because they lack access to period products, and 51% say they "feel like their school does not care about them" when period products aren't provided.
"It's telling students that their very real life and bodily experiences isn't an 'appropriate narrative' for school," Glantzberg says of the lack of free period products for students. "It's already so hard for people to be educated about their own bodies."
What is period poverty?
"Period poverty is defined as the inability to afford or access period products to manage your menstruation," Bedard says.
"A lot of people think this happens on the other side of the globe," Bedard adds. "That is just not true."
A reported 1 in 4 U.S. teens say they’ve missed time at school because they don't have access to period products.
“Students who don’t have access to period products when they need them miss out,” Bedard says. “They miss out on class time. They miss out on attendance. More importantly, they miss out on their own dignity and their ability to be their full selves.”
Bedard says failing to mandate free period products in schools adds to the sigma and shame surrounding menstruation, which leaves students "feeling embarrassed" about asking for the products they need.
A reported 64% of U.S. teens believe society teaches people to be ashamed of their periods, and 66% said they would rather avoid school when on their period.
Glantzberg says it is an "embarrassment" to ask school staff for a pad or a tampon.
“It just creates an unnecessary barrier to someone’s education," the teen says.
How to combat period poverty
Lysne Tait, executive director of Helping Women Period, a nonprofit organization that helps supply free period products to people who menstruate, says in order to combat period poverty society needs to view it as a "public health issue."
"If a kid got cut at school the teacher would have no problem giving that kid a Band-Aid," Tait tells TODAY.com. "(Period poverty) is not a gender issue. It's not a sex issue. It's a health issue. And I really think we need to look at it from that viewpoint."
Tait says eradicating the "period tax" is also an essential component of ending period poverty. Currently, 23 states tax period products as "nonessential goods," adding to their cost and making them even further out of reach for the reported 17 million people who get periods and live below the federal poverty line.
Breaking down the stigma of menstruationJune 29, 202206:08
Manasi Gajjalapurna, 17, goes to high school in California, where schools provide period products for free. She says she has seen firsthand how access to those products impacts students.
"It has broken that barrier of awkwardness that a lot of girls face when it comes to having to go to the bathroom," Gajjalapurna tells TODAY.com.
The high schooler says before period products were provided at school, going to the bathroom with a pad or a tampon "felt like you're smuggling something or you're breaking a rule."
"The nice thing about this now is I don't feel like I'm breaking any rules by going to the bathroom to change my tampon," Bajjalapurna adds. "I'm not worried about packing enough pads or having to call someone or tracking down a pad. It's just having that one thing removed and being able to just, like, concentrate on what I need to concentrate on. It's helped me so much."
Back in New Jersey, frustrated and impatient for change, Glantzberg took matters into her own hands last year, organizing a group of her peers to provide period products for their fellow students at their own cost.
“Basically, we have a donation system, which if you can imagine (is like) students donating toilet paper to have that necessary product available for students,” Glantzberg says. "I thought it was important to do what I can, along with my friends, to take that barrier away.
"Never underestimate the power of your own voice in just speaking up and calling to action those around you," the teen adds. "You can never foresee the type of change that you might inspire."