Sunday, May 28, 2017

Menstrual Health, Human Rights & Gender Equality

By Inga Winkler, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, Guest contributor

Have you recently heard someone speak about menstruation or menstrual health? As in speaking about menstruation publicly, not a whisper asking a friend for a tampon? The chances are better than ever. Cosmopolitan labelled 2015 as the year in which the period went public. And Newsweek proclaimed in 2016 that the fight to end period shaming is going mainstream. More and more people feel comfortable speaking about menstruation thanks to advocates such as Jennifer Weiss-Wolf bringing the issue to the forefront,

Today, on May 28, is as good as ever to do so. It is Menstrual Hygiene Day, a global day for awareness raising and advocacy. Menstrual health is fundamentally about (sexual) health and gender equality, and has close links to education, work and a host of other human rights. Recognizing the importance of this fundamental, everyday, but previously largely invisible issue, countries all over the world are making progress on menstrual health, and so is the United States.

In most states in the US, feminine hygiene products are subject to standard sales tax rather than being exempt as many other items that cover basic daily necessities such as many groceries. During an interview with Ingrid Nilsen, former President Barack Obama explained that he does not understand why states tax sanitary products as luxury items and continued: “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

Assembly members in several states have started to address the tampon tax. "Basically we are being taxed for being women. […] You can't just ignore your period, it's not like you can just ignore the constant flow," Cristina Garcia, an assemblywoman in California, explained.  While the efforts in California have not (yet) been successful, New York , Connecticut and Illinois recently de-taxed menstrual products and similar efforts are underway in many other states.

However, putting an end to the tampon tax is just the tip of the iceberg. It is an important step that states can (and should) take which ensures great visibility. Still, de-taxing menstrual products does not ensure that they are affordable to all. And a human rights perspective on menstrual health goes far beyond this. One advantage of the human rights framework is that it draws attention to intersectional discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status and other factors. Homeless women face particular challenges on the days they menstruate, experiencing difficulties in ensuring hygiene often due to a lack of menstrual products in shelters. Women in detention face a scarcity of menstrual products, in many instances having to request products which often results in humiliation. Transgender men, intersex and gender non-conforming persons are often overlooked in the discussion on menstrual equity.

New York City recently passed a package of legislation spearheaded by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland that seeks to guarantee access to menstrual products to all female inmates, all persons residing in city shelters and all students in public schools. Mayor de Blasio stated: “There should be no stigma around something as fundamental as menstruation. […] Students should be able to concentrate on their studies, New Yorkers in shelter should be able to focus on rebuilding their lives, and women in our Correction Department should be able to work toward rehabilitation and release without the indignity of inadequate access to tampons and pads. As a father, husband and feminist, I am proud to sign these bills into law.”

While a lot remains to be done, these measures are promising steps in the right direction to ensure menstrual health and dignity for every person who menstruates.

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