On July 13 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a bill increasing access to menstrual hygiene products (MHP) for women and girls in schools, homeless shelters and prisons. Amongst those celebrating the passage of the law were Dafne Regenhardt, Elyse Greenblatt, Katarzyna (Kat) Wróbel and Monica Llaguno, a group of newly graduated SGPIA students whose final Practicum in Action (PIA) research project had contributed to the passage of the groundbreaking law.
During the Fall 2015 semester, while taking the PIA I course, the group of women decided their initial research project was not working. Elyse recalls that “It had come to Dafne’s attention that menstrual hygiene was potentially an issue for homeless women, in terms of access and availability, and she brought up the idea to the group.” Intrigued, they began doing basic research on state-funded access to MHP for homeless women around the city and found that no city or country had any programs to provide feminine hygiene products to women. “Any MHP that are distributed in shelters or schools are acquired through donations from private individuals or some in-kind donations from corporations, but nothing state-sanctioned,” recalls Kat.
Further research provided them with the opportunity they were looking for — City Council-member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (District 21, Queens) was drafting legislation to provide city-funded access to MHP to three different groups of women, including women in homeless shelters across the city. The group reached out to the Council-member’s office and were tasked with providing a needs assessment and qualitative data in support of the legislation. “Effectively,” Kat clarifies, “Council-member Ferreras-Copeland’s office was our client. They told us what information they needed and we did independent work with regular check-ins and then we delivered a final report.”
Monica points out, “It is important to note that we learned the tools of project based research – that is, designing a needs assessment and the collection of qualitative data – from PIA I. The foundations for us to be able to do this project came from that class.”
They reached out to SGPIA Professor Achilles Kallergis, whom Dafne had previously worked with, who agreed to advise them during the project. Throughout the Spring 2016 semester, the group sought and were granted permission by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to conduct research in homeless shelters.
“With our advisor Achilles, we drafted a structured [template] to interview the shelter administrators and the women that lived in the shelter,” Monica explained. In total, 29 women and five shelter administrative staff volunteered to participate in the study. Based on those responses, the group produced three recommendations for Council-member Ferreras-Copeland’s office to include in the legislation.
The first recommendation was to provide all types of MHP, as most shelters that did provide feminine hygiene products only provided the older, less comfortable, sanitary pads. “Due to the nature of DHS and the shelter network in general, city-funded shelters do provide these products, but shelters that are on a contract with the city do not necessarily have to,” Kat explains, which led to the second recommendation that all shelters receiving money from the city have a standardized requirement to provide MHP. The third recommendation suggested shelters provide access to MHP in bathrooms. Monica explained that “many of the women complained that they would have to either go to an administrator for MHP or would only be given a certain number at specific times, which may not coincide with their own cycles,” and the recommendation was designed to address these issues.
In June 2016, a few weeks after presenting their findings to the Council-member’s office and after their graduation from the SGPIA program, the group was invited to testify in front of the Women’s Committee of the city council. “We introduced ourselves and our project and presented our findings. It was very exciting,” says Monica.
The city council voted unanimously to approve the legislation and in July, Mayor de Blasio signed the bill into law. “I went to the bill signing which was at a school that had run a pilot test of the program and it was very exciting,” says Elyse. “The law has been worked into the city budget and is being implemented,” she continues, “so all the middle and high schools in NYC will have the dispensers in them by the start of the school year.”
This is the first time any city in the world has legislated to provide publicly funded MHP in schools, prisons and homeless shelters. Complementing the work of the city council, in late July 2016, New York State Governor Cuomo signed the so-called ‘Tampon Tax’ bill which eliminated state sales taxes on feminine hygiene products. Four other states in the U.S. have eliminated similar taxes.
Reflecting on the project, Monica recalls gaining a new perspective. “Because we were studying international development, we did not think of these issues inside of U.S. borders. We think that it’s only in Africa or Latin America where people don’t have access to menstrual hygiene products and it opened my eyes to see the division that exists within New York City – one of the biggest and most expensive cities in the world and there are still people who cannot afford basic needs. So, it was eye opening to study international development, but to find the same issues affecting people around the block here in New York.”
For more information on the PIA program, read: http://www.newschool.edu/public-engagement/ma-ms-international-affairs-practicum/
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