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NYC to offer free menstrual products in schools: Will other cities follow?

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Students pass through the hallway between classes at The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria on September 17, 2015, in Astoria, New York. A unanimous vote by the New York City Council on Tuesday set New York up to be the first city to require free menstrual products in public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.

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A unanimous vote by the New York City Council on Tuesday set New York up to be the first city to require free menstrual products in public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.

The bill by City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, which passed 49-0, would make pads and tampons free in public school restrooms and would guarantee the availability of menstrual products in homeless shelters and jails. The proposed law is expected to cost about $2.5 million annually in the city's $82 billion budget.

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During Tuesday's discussion, Ms. Ferreras-Copeland, a Democrat, waved a wrapped tampon in the air, telling her fellow lawmakers that "they're as necessary as toilet paper." 

The proposal "expands on and enshrines into law" many policies that already exist in these facilities, Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, who oversees homeless shelters in the city, told the Associated Press.

The vote comes at a time when menstruation has become a topic of national conversation, due to the efforts of activists to raise awareness of menstrual inequality and lessen the taboo of talking about periods.

In April of 2015, social media flooded with photos of Kiran Gandhi, a woman who ran the London Marathon while on her period and without using any menstrual products. Several months later, Twitter lit up with the hashtag #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult after presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested that GOP debate moderator Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever." 

Use of the word "menstruation" in major national news outlets more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, leading NPR to declare 2015 "the year of the period." Similarly, Cosmopolitan magazine dubbed it "the year the period went public." 

"The fact that we've been able to talk about periods openly is the biggest step in the revolution," said Ms. Gandhi to NPR. "So many people are weighing in about the problems they currently face with their periods. It makes people empowered to speak about their own bodies."

Growing awareness of issues surrounding menstruation has been reflected in public policy, particularly in discussions of the "tampon tax." Fifteen of the 40 US states with a tax on menstrual hygiene products moved to change that this year. Some, such as Illinois and New York, successfully passed bills to eliminate the tax; other states, such as Utah, voted to keep the tax. 

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Whether other cities will follow in New York City's footsteps and require free menstrual products in public facilities remains to be seen. New York isn't the first city to have this idea – it's been discussed by city, county, and state lawmakers around the country – but no other proposals of this magnitude have passed. State legislation that would require free menstrual products in public schools and state buildings was proposed in Wisconsin in November, but has been stalled so far. 

It's unknown when Mayor Bill de Blasio will take up the measure, but the Democratic mayor's administration supports the proposal.