It didn’t take much convincing for Sara Shumway to get her dad to go with her to a rally about removing taxes from menstrual products.
“I was like, ‘Dad, do you want to go to a period protest?’ He was like, ‘You can’t protest nature, Sara.’ Then I explained it to him, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in. Go for it.’ So we made our signs and here we are," the 16-year-old from Bountiful said.
Sara and Roger Shumway held signs that read “These are needs not luxuries” and “Pads for all” as they stood in the Utah Capitol on Wednesday among the roughly 60 people, mostly women, who gathered in the rotunda in Salt Lake City. Attendees wore red, filled out postcards to send to their legislators and held posters that said “We are the menstrual movement” and “End the tampon tax” as they listened to speakers.
Similar rallies scheduled this week across the U.S. will focus on “period poverty,” or the cost of menstrual products, making them more accessible and eliminating the sales tax on these items, according to PERIOD, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Ore.
“It’s b.s. This is a basic human right, and if you’re not going to allow us to have [easier access to products], then something needs to change. It’s 2019,” Sara Shumway said.
Over her lifetime, a woman menstruates on 3,000 days, on average, the equivalent of eight years, said Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO of Days for Girls, an organization that has increased access to menstrual care in 141 nations.
Generally, a quarter of women struggle to afford period products, according to Emily Bell McCormick, founder of The Policy Project, a health policy group in Salt Lake City. And nearly half of low-income women have to choose between a meal or purchasing period products, she said.
“If you have to choose between food and hygiene, food wins, shelter wins,” Mergens said. Access to these products affects whether women and girls can go to school or work, she added. “What we’re talking about is something basic to our biology," she said.
A 16-year-old girl she knows of in the Salt Lake City School District lives with her mom and two sisters and struggles to afford hygiene items, McCormick said. Instead, “they buy cotton balls, which are cheaper, and fold rags over them.” The girls “typically don’t go to school during their periods for fear the cotton balls will fall out of their pants."
“The statistics also look like one University of Utah student with whom I spoke, who cannot afford period products but discovered that she could use her health savings account to buy Depends, an incontinence product, to use instead," McCormick said.
McCormick and other organizers asked policymakers to reclassify menstrual products as medically necessary, to allow people to purchase them using health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts, Medicaid and other designated pre-tax health plans.
“Right now, things like Rogaine, Viagra, sunscreen and Band-Aids and incontinence products are considered medically necessary while tampons and pads are not,” she said.
Organizers also proposed that menstrual products be freely available in public schools. In June, the Salt Lake City Council set aside $20,000 for a one-year pilot program to make the products free at bathrooms in some city buildings. Amy Fowler, who helped spearhead the “menstrual equity" initiative, said this week, “It’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of” in her two years as a councilwoman. Fowler collaborated with Salt Lake City council member, and now mayoral candidate, Erin Mendenhall, who also spoke at the rally.
As of Tuesday, 50% of the buildings had made the products available, according to Matthew Rojas, director of communications for the mayor’s office. Anecdotally, Rojas said there hasn’t been a surge in use yet or calls for refills.
Salt Lake City International Airport initially planned to provide free hygiene products when the new terminal opens in fall 2020, but that was pushed up, according to Nancy Volmer, communications and marketing director. The products are available now, Volmer said Tuesday.
The Salt Lake City Public Library provides items “at a number of our locations” by request, through Volunteers of America, and the Canteena’s youth resource closet at the main branch is "well-stocked,” Quinn Smith, assistant director of marketing and communications, said in an email.
The Utah Legislature should exempt menstrual products from sales tax, rally organizers said, like other items, including Viagra, arcade tokens, car washes, vending machine candy and college athletic events. “The timing is right” as legislators focus on tax reform, said Aimee Winder Newton, Salt Lake County councilwoman.
Taxing tampons and pads sends “a message that women matter less than an arcade game,” Mergens said.
State Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, has tried for years to exclude disposable hygiene products, including children’s diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons and adult diapers, from the state’s sales tax, without success.
“This is something we can change,” Mergens said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.