By Sam Piha
Different communities and individuals have strong opinions about how schools and youth programs treat the issues surrounding human sexuality. We were interested in hearing the views of a young person who is taking a stand on one of these issues.
Maggie Di Sanza is a 16-year-old high school student and advocate for menstrual equity. We first learned about Maggie through her article in EdWeek and her website, Bleed Shamelessly, which works to put an end to the harmful stigmas against menstruation and further gender equity through journalism, education, and protest.
Below are Maggie’s responses to some of our interview questions regarding her work.
Q: How would you define ‘menstrual equity’?
A: Menstrual equity refers to the idea that period hygiene should be a fundamental human right. It encompasses the philosophy that everyone who needs menstrual products, should be able to get them, and that natural need should not inhibit access to education or work. The reason that the term ‘equity’ is used as opposed to ‘equality,’ is because of the economic and social disparities that plague our society.
Q: You have written about the role of schools in supporting menstrual equity, but what about out of school programs that serve a large number of older girls?
A: Afterschool and summer programs carry the same barrier that typical school programs do when it comes to menstrual equity. From supplying menstrual products in all public restrooms, to complete and inclusive education. As a start, ensuring that all restrooms provide pads and tampons for free. No student should be concerned with paying for their menstrual products; as to not get in the way of their education, afterschool and summer programs can ensure that the district or individual school provides said products. This involves clear cut and administrative advocacy.
If it is the job of an after school or summer program to prompt sexual or reproductive health conversations, make sure that you are promoting inclusive and accurate information. If we open the conversation up to gender-expansive and transgender people, much more testimony and accurate information surrounding menstrual stigma becomes clear. Especially when it comes to adolescents, who are already questioning a great deal about gender and sexuality, affirming their bodily experiences regardless of sex or gender, is incredibly important.
Q: How can staff promote menstrual equity while being inclusive to transgender or non-binary youth?
A: Staff can affirm this idea through using gender neutral language when referring to menstruation. Instead of addressing period-having people as women, girls, or females, I do my best to use gender neutral language. This is because not all menstruating people are women, and not all women menstruate.
As we know, typical gendered language does not apply to the transgender, or gender-expansive community; these groups are constantly disregarded when speaking about reproductive health, healthcare, and education. Thus, it is the job of all advocates for menstrual and reproductive healthcare to include all folks in the conversations. I urge all people beginning this conversation to refer to period-having people as menstruating folks, as opposed to using strictly feminine-tied language. Thus, we will eventually disassociate womanhood, with menstruation.
Next, we can ensure that our education is inclusive and accurate by respecting and sharing testimony and menstrual experiences. Everyone experiences menstruation in different ways, shaming someone for not properly experiencing a bodily function is unproductive and dehumanizing. Instead, we can promote the different ways that menstruation occurs by sharing, recognizing, and valuing the encounters of others.
Everyone will, at some point, come across someone who is on their period. Simply because one does not identify with a particular group or experiences does not negate the fact that it is important to have sensitivity regarding the issue. Imagine the compassionate and inclusive society we could have, if we did not limit our education to such outdated binaries.
Q: What about youth programs that offer information related to sexuality?
A: We must make sure to bridge the gaps that traditional schooling excludes from menstrual education. Teach about what healthy menstruation looks like, and equally, what unhealthy menstruation can look like. Educate students about the products they can use to manage their periods, and how to properly take control of their own healthcare and bodies. Inform them of where to get menstrual products, and how they can support their peers who may not have access to menstrual products. Include information surrounding the menstrual disparities that plague our world, and how we can all take action in terms of abolishing social stigma as well as the systemic barriers to menstrual products.
Q: If the schools in which these programs exist do not have any policies or support for menstrual equity, how can after-school programs take on an advocacy role?
A: Those working for and managing afterschool and summer programs can write letters to head administrative staff in a district or school, and ask why certain bathrooms do not have free menstrual products. Urge them to promote not only the wellbeing, but education of all students in order to maintain productive and just educational environments. This can be as simple as an email-writing campaign, or a call to a principal or superintendent.
When advocating for free menstrual products in schools, it is important to emphasize the impact on the productivity of students. How can we expect menstruating students to succeed educationally if we do not give them the tools to manage their periods? If we ensure that menstrual products are physically accessible, it removes the common barrier to education and productivity that many period-havers face. It is the job of out-of-school programs to promote menstrual equity through education and conversation. By pointing out the ways in which students are inhibited by the system itself, administrators are far more likely to adjust their policy.
Menstrual hygiene should be a fundamental human right; we should no longer perceive making menstrual products accessible as a privilege to those receiving them. It is not a privilege to have a period; but rather it is a necessity for those in power to provide the tools to manage it.
You can also advocate by uplifting student testimony. Listen to and value the experiences of students within the program who have faced similar inequality when it comes to menstrual education or a lack of accessible products. Use their stories to advocate for your position and push for their experiences and values to be heard.
[Read this article on this topic from a Philadelphia newspaper.]
How are afterschool programs supporting girls through menstrual equity?
Please write us regarding any activities you conduct in you program.
Maggie Di Sanza is currently a junior at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin. Social justice has always been a large part of her life, and promoting the wellbeing of all people. She is currently the Co-President of Memorial’s Gender Equity Association, and a member of our Sexual Assault Prevention Club, GSA, and Student Activist Club. She has lobbied for rights at the capitol, protested alongside her peers for equal rights, and presented the importance of equality at multiple educational institutions. She started Bleed Shamelessly with the hope of educating others about the menstrual inequities that exist in our culture, and improving accessibility to menstrual hygiene products; because she believes no one should feel incapable due to their period.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.