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National Period Day rally highlights fight for menstrual equity

Worldwide movement comes to Denver

Protesters demanded menstrual justice on the steps of the Capitol on Oct. 19.
Photo: Alex Stallsworth · The Sentry

Under the Saturday sun on Oct. 19, a small but mighty village clad in red gathered on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol. Those red villages dotted all 50 states. In Denver, around 50 people congregated at the Capitol building, from high schoolers to baby boomers. One nation, indivisible, brought together by one thing: menstruation equity.  

PERIOD, a movement for menstrual justice, sponsored rallies all across the United States and four other countries on National Period Day. With the goal of raising awareness for period poverty and eliminating the tax on menstrual products, the Denver rally partnered with multiple local organizations, including Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado and Women for the Justice of the Earth. 

Founded in 2014, PERIOD is “fighting to end period poverty and period stigma through service, education, and advocacy.” PERIOD has 450 chapters across the globe, which run education programs and provide menstrual products to those in need.  

According to PERIOD, 35 states impose a sales tax on menstrual products, otherwise known as the pink tax, which declares them a non-necessity. While the city of Denver does mark menstrual products as tax exempt, other counties in Colorado have a 4.3 percent tax on period products. According to a Jezebel study, people who menstruate spend an average $60 on menstrual products a year. Often, those living below the poverty line must choose between buying menstrual products or putting dinner on the table.  

PERIOD and its partnering organizations call for safe, affordable, and accessible tampons to be available in schools, prisons and shelters. Earlier this year, the Colorado House signed HB 19-1224 to provide free and accessible period products in Colorado prisons. The unanimously passed bill included an added $40,000 to the Department of Corrections budget to pay for the inmates’ menstrual products.  

But the battle for period products doesn’t end in Colorado. For the upcoming legislative session, PERIOD, alongside New York Rep. Grace Meng, have drafted the Menstrual Equity for All Act. The bill, introduced earlier this year, demands free period products in all detention and prison facilities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. In addition, the bill calls for free menstrual products in all federal buildings and that employers with more than 100 employees also provide free menstrual products.  

Providing period products in schools is also an issue. According to a 2017 study published by Always, a menstrual product company, one in five girls in the United States have either left school early or missed school altogether because they didn’t have access to period products. 

As with many activist movements in the 21st century, PERIOD is run by youth. Founded by high schoolers Nadya Okamoto and Vincent Forand, the team at PERIOD primarily consists of millennials and Generation Z students.  

Jess Whetsel, one of the organizers for the Denver National Period Day rally, said one of PERIOD’s main goals is also teaching organization strategies to the younger generation. “PERIOD provided a lot of education, training on how to organize a rally, how to reach out to legislators, how to reach out to media. So I really want to commend them for the work they’ve done to train the next generation to do this work,” Whetsel said on her experience with organizing the rally.  

Among the speakers at the Denver rally, four students from Arvada West High School spoke about their own fight to get free period products in their school. Working alongside Briana Titone, a Colorado State House Representative, the students have started drafting a bill that would require all public schools to provide free menstrual products. Emma Tang, high schooler and activist from Colorado Springs, helped organize the rally. “If you can’t even say tampon, why are you writing laws on it?” Tang said in her speech.  

While the topic of menstruation is often coded as feminine, organizers of the rally steered clear of gendered language. Terms like “menstruators,” “people who menstruate,” and “people with periods” were used by speakers to ensure a trans and non-binary inclusive space. “Period products” or “menstrual products” replaced “feminine products,” and the word “hygiene” was completely removed. Additionally, Always removed feminine symbols from their packaging. “We’re also committed to diversity and inclusion and are on a continual journey to understand the needs of all of our consumers,” Proctor and Gamble, Always’ parent company, said in a statement to USA Today.  

Not only does PERIOD advocate for inclusivity, but also the complete destigmatization of the natural bodily function. According to a study from THINX, another period product company, 58 percent of menstruators feel uncomfortable just for being on their period. The same study found that 42 percent of menstruators have experienced “period-shaming” and that one in five have been period-shamed by their non-menstruating counterparts. In addition, nearly half resorted to using euphemistic language to talk about their periods.  

Whetsel argues that using indirect language to talk about periods is part of the problem. “Stop saying it’s Shark Week, stop saying Aunt Flow is coming to visit. Say you have a period, say that you’re menstruating. Because there’s no way that we’re gonna be able to destigmatize what’s happening in our bodies without just saying the language and using the scientific language for it,” Whetsel said.  

Getting involved in the legislative process is also integral for getting access to menstrual products in all public spaces, as PERIOD advocates. Whetsel’s advice? “Reach out to your legislators. These kinds of bills don’t just happen because the people in power want them to happen.”  

At CU Denver, the process of getting free menstrual products on campus is already in the works. Last year, senior Esther Bellinksy and former CU Denver Student Government Association Vice President Frida Silva proposed a plan to get free dispensers in bathrooms across campus. After approval from the administration, 13 menstrual product dispensers were installed in several women’s and gender neutral bathrooms across the campus. This semester, the campaign for free menstrual products on campus was handed over to current SGA President Jamie Sutliff. With the help of Jay Campbell, Executive Director for Facilities Management, the usage of each dispenser is being monitored in hopes of expanding the program in the future.  

SGA is working hard to keep the project going and to make sure students have access to period products. “What this whole process has taught me is that if students are really inclined to get something done on this campus, be aggressive and persistent. Things are possible,” Sutliff said. “You don’t have to be in SGA to make change. We’re just here to help you get the resources you need.”  

Sutliff said that SGA is planning a week-long awareness campaign for next semester in hopes of expanding the project to more bathrooms, including men’s bathrooms. For now, SGA wants student feedback via a survey created by Bellinsky and Silva.  

“[The survey will] track qualitative information about the experience with CU Denver menstrual products. So if students can help in any way, I think it’s take that survey,” Silva said.  

“And tell your people about it!” Sutliff added.  

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