Maryland health departments and social service agencies would distribute free menstrual hygiene products to low-income households should a bill in the state Legislature pass this session.
Saara Khan, a 13-year-old activist, brought this bill forward in hopes that it will combat menstruation inequities.
“We don’t choose to have periods, so why should women be burdened unnecessarily with the outrageous costs of period supplies,” Khan testified in a House committee hearing Tuesday.
HB757 mandates all local health departments and community action agencies give out menstrual hygiene products at no cost to all women enrolled in Medicaid and low-income households.
Community action agencies are social services organizations that provide assistance in all 23 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, according to the bill.
The Department of Housing and Community Development will financially assist the agencies with providing menstrual hygiene products to all female residents in homeless shelters and qualifying female students, the bill said.
Khan and Del. Heather Bagnall, D-Anne Arundel, House sponsor of the bill, felt the urgency to bring this bill forward due to the lack of general help for these vulnerable communities.
Currently, there is no federal program that deems menstrual products as a necessity, according to advocates.
“You know we have federal programs like WIC and SNAP that have extensions for things like medications, but they don’t extend to menstrual products,” Bagnall said.
Community action agencies were chosen because they already have relationships with these vulnerable communities, Bagnall added.
Period poverty — lack of access to menstrual hygiene products — has only increased because of the pandemic, advocates said.
Dana Marlowe, founder and executive director of I Support the Girls, an international nonprofit organization that distributes essential items — bras, underwear and menstrual hygiene products — to women experiencing homelessness, has seen an increase in demand for these specific products.
“Once the pandemic started, by mid-March, we noticed a massive spike to where it amounted to a 35% increase in demand for menstrual hygiene products,” Marlowe told Capital News Service.
Lack of accessibility to the products could lead to elevated health risks, including urinary and reproductive tract infections, infertility issues and potentially cervical cancer, advocates said.
This health inequity issue has gained international attention.
Scotland became the first country to pass a law mandating all menstrual products would be free for “anyone who needs them,” and most recently, New Zealand announced that free menstrual products will be made available to all students for the next three years.
Menstruating individuals can struggle due to their lack of access to menstrual products, and some fail to attend work and school while on their period, according to advocates.
Marlowe said the menstrual product bill will raise people’s awareness on health inequity and provide more accessibility to vulnerable communities in Maryland.
“We will raise social consciousness on menstrual equity in Maryland,” Marlowe said. “And that … stranger in need can easily access a tampon as you can Old Bay seasoning, or an overnight maxi pad with wings as they could a crabcake.”
Additional legislation introduced in Maryland’s 2021 General Assembly session that addresses this inequity, HB205 cross-filed with SB427, would provide free menstrual products in public schools.
The House version of the bill passed 93-43, and awaits a committee hearing in the Senate. The Senate bill awaits a committee vote.
Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, House sponsor of the bill, said menstrual products are an essential item that are relatively expensive.
“Especially for families in poverty who are planning their monthly expenses, this is a major part of it,” Reznik said. “Depending on how many women are in the family, or how many menstruating individuals are in the family it can be a big chunk of the monthly budget.”
Bagnall said she is planning on amending her menstrual product bill to state that the Maryland Community Action Partnership, a regional network of social services agencies, would cover some of the costs of these feminine hygiene products.
More than 400,000 women ages 19-64 are enrolled in Medicaid in Maryland and costs to local health departments could be significant, according to a legislative analysis.
HB757 has been heard before the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
THis article originally appeared on CNSMaryland.org on February 26, 2021.