This article originally appeared on the MPR website on April 6, 2023. You can find the original here.
Elif Ozturk could not have made it clearer to the lawmakers sitting in front of her.
“We cannot learn while we are leaking,” the 16-year-old Hopkins High School student told a legislative hearing in January as she and other teens made their case for Minnesota to provide free menstrual products in public schools.
“It’s just simply the truth,” she noted later. “This is a fear everyone knows, and it is happening in our schools all of the time.”
Students and their allies have pressed lawmakers for years to address the problem they describe as “period poverty.” They detailed the indignities of struggling with periods at school without the products they need or the means to buy them. They framed it as a public health issue for those who viewed it as just a hassle.
The payoff for that hard work may come soon. Minnesota lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill requiring Minnesota public schools serving students in grades four through 12 to provide free pads, tampons or other menstrual products to students in all restrooms.
Advocates credit students for speaking out publicly and refusing to let the issue be ignored at the Capitol. Elif and other teens say in the fight they’ve learned some real-world lessons on power, persistence and making change.
“The student movement around this bill has been an inspiration,” said Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL- New Brighton, the chief sponsor of the bill. “Watching students come in and share their stories … it just shows a level of bravery and commitment that I don’t remember having when I was their age.”
‘Can’t just sit by’
Elif and other teens who’ve testified on the problems of periods at school share a similar journey. They decided they needed to act when others wouldn’t. They kept pushing despite being ignored or dismissed at times by adults who didn’t see the lack of period products at school as a big deal.
“Most people cannot control when they get their period. If there was willpower to help you do that it would be amazing, but there is simply not,” said Dr. Katy Miller, medical director of adolescent health at Children’s Minnesota hospitals. “Teenagers don’t know when they will get their period, if they’ll be in school or in the middle of gym class.”
Miller said it’s not uncommon for her patients to ask for period products when they’re in the clinic at Children’s and share with her their concerns of bleeding through their pants and missing school. At Children’s, she tries to expand period education to be inclusive of all menstruators, including transgender and nonbinary youth, by using gender-neutral language.
Maarit Mattson, a freshman at Mankato East High School, is working with the community to create a menstrual products drive. Elif Ozturk heard about Maarit’s work in southern Minnesota from other activists and asked her to testify in January. At 14, she was the youngest speaker.
Maarit is working with small businesses in the Mankato area now on a menstrual product drive. She sees it as a public health concern that needs to be faced, not a political issue.
“I can’t just sit by and let all this stuff happen,” Maarit said in an interview. “If I have the opportunity to use my voice, to help people, to speak up for what I believe in … that is what I would like to do.”
At FAIR School for Arts in Minneapolis, 15-year-old Bramwell Lundquist is just entering the period equity movement. They say it’s important that it remains gender inclusive.
“It will make it more comfortable for everyone … then people can use whatever restroom they want without being worried,” they said.
Nurah Muhammad, 15, and 16-year-old Halimah Abdullah have been best friends since elementary school. Nurah goes to Osseo High School and Halimah goes to Minneapolis Southwest High. They testified in January in favor of free period products.
In middle school, Nurah said she noticed her menstruating peers would miss class, laid up in the nurse’s office or forced to go home. While she hadn’t yet gone through a period, she started buying products with her own money and passing them out to her peers.
“Even then, I was surprised because I assumed the school would provide that to us. I thought it was some kind of secret that just people who got periods knew about. Then, I got to high school, and I was shocked they weren’t there for us,” she said.
Nurah and a few other friends took the initiative and started leaving products in bathrooms for people. She is planning to take out an ad in the yearbook to ask for more donations.
Halimah said the struggle to get needed products creates cascading problems for many students.
“If you can’t focus in school, you can’t do the assignments, and if you can’t do the assignments, you aren’t getting good grades. It is really detrimental.”
‘No help. No nothing’
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic started, 19-year-old Trinity Hanif was working to get free period products in bathrooms at St. Michael-Albertville High School.
Her women’s advocacy group wrote a budget proposal and sent it to the superintendent and school board. Then COVID hit and people began hoarding items, including period products. Hanif and her friends started making period kits to give to community members.
When students returned to school, she won funding from the Minnesota Youth Council to expand the work. At a Golden Valley warehouse, she loaded her car with boxes of free products and drove back to school to stock restrooms. School administrators, she said, “just kind of stood there … no help. No nothing.”
Hanif recalled feeling ignored by adults when asking questions about period poverty.
“They just pushed it aside, they acted like it was no big deal and it was silly of me to ask for period equity,” she recalled. “It really does interfere with our education. It distorts the playing field between menstruators and non-menstruators.”
Eleanor Cordes launched a similar program last year at St. Paul Central High School. The now 19-year-old was in her senior year when she connected with the National Council of Jewish Women in Minnesota and received a donation.
“I am a really firm believer that you should never have to miss school because you don’t have what you need,” she said. “It is an equity issue. We have soap in the bathroom, toilet paper and paper towels. I don’t see how this is any different.”
Cordes now goes to college in Iowa and worries about whether her high school efforts will be left to fade away. Many of the current supplies are purchased with donations rather than factored into a school budget.
“Eventually, the donations are going to run out. It’s something I have been concerned about. I want to emphasize … every student has something to contribute to the learning community,” Cordes said.
“When period products become this barrier, it creates very harmful impacts for both the students and the entire community,” she added. “Providing the products is truly a small investment with a very big reward.”
Bill appears poised to pass
Feist’s bill, HF 44, would require public schools to provide free menstrual products in all restrooms. She said it would cost about $2 million, or about $2 per pupil. The bill is included in the big education funding package lawmakers will vote on in coming weeks.
A similar bill traveled through the House last session but stalled as the education budget was trimmed. Feist now believes it’s likely to pass in May.
“One of the important aspects of this bill is not just to provide students with what they need, but to normalize conversations around periods and making sure that everyone who menstruates just feels comfortable with this very normal bodily function,” Feist said.
It has some Republican support, including Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. Urdahl voted for Feist’s bill despite the defeat of his amendment that would have limited the products’ availability to female-assigned and gender-neutral restrooms.
“Just talking with my wife and family members,” he said, “they felt like it was an important issue I should support.”
With a bill within reach, Elif said the collective push to change the law has “just been really satisfying, I love seeing students be able to show their passions and abilities. It’s really fulfilling.”
Whatever happens at the Capitol, the teens who’ve worked to get period products to those who need them say they won’t stop and that the issue remains deeply personal to them.
Former Eagan High School student Tori Robarge, 18, focused on getting period products to her peers who couldn’t afford them, adding that she’s also dealt with period poverty. She won a grant to install boxes of free period products in all Eagan High bathrooms. The work caught the attention of Feist, who asked her to testify.
“I became very invested because I had felt the effects of it before. I carry that with me,” said Robarge, who’s continuing her efforts now in college.
“I am so incredibly terrified of ever smelling bad or people perceiving me as unclean. It [period poverty] has a way of alienating people, and kids can be awful to each other. You’re not focused on your studies or extracurriculars. You are just trying to get done with the day so you can leave,” she said.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this project and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” she added. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”