A South Orange family and a girl’s bat mitzvah played an important role in the campaign that led to Gov. Phil Murphy signing into law a bill requiring menstrual products be provided free of charge to students who need them in school.
Elise Joy and her two daughters, Emma and Quinn, are the founders of Girls Helping Girls. Period., which supplies menstrual products to people who need them. The idea for the organization grew out of a mitzvah that Emma Joy was doing in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah in 2014 when she was 13 years old.
“I was collecting for a food bank and I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who mentioned that menstrual products are not covered by food stamps,” Emma Joy said. “That shocked us and we began our initial collection. It seemed like everyone who donated was also unaware.”
The new law, which was signed into law on Aug. 23, requires school districts ensure that students in grades six through 12 have direct access to menstrual products in at least 50 percent of female and gender-neutral school bathrooms free of charge.
The bill requires that the Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Health, periodically review and assess whether the provision of free menstrual products meets the needs of menstruating students. If necessary, the department will make recommendations regarding the expansion of access to menstrual products to students in grades below grade six.
Any costs incurred by a school district in complying with the provisions of this bill will be borne by the state.
The Office of Legislative Services (OLS) estimates that this bill would result in a $1.8 million to $3.5 million increase in state expenditures in the first full school year following enactment and a $1.4 million to $2.9 million increase in state expenditures in each subsequent year.
Based on data from the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 1,383 schools across the State would be required to provide free menstrual products. Total enrollment of female students in grades six through 12 in these schools is about 354,497, according to the state.
Elise Joy, Emma’s mother, pointed out that the $3 million is a fraction of one percent of the state’s total $54.5 billion current budget.
Elise Joy is now the executive director of the Girls Helping Girls. Period foundation, which started working with other organizations, including Equality Period NJ, to get this type of law passed.
“There were several dozen advocates,” Joy said. “Starting about four or five years ago, when there were rumblings of legislators willing to pick up this issue.”
One of those advocates is Anjali Mehrotra, who is the founder of Equality, Period, NJ, a menstrual equity coalition.
“It really was a gender equity issue,” said Mehrota. “When men go to the bathroom they find all the products they need; toilet paper, soap, paper towels. However women have never had that. Even when there was a (menstrual product) dispenser there was a charge but more likely than not, it was empty anyway.”
Elise Joy said the legislature was very good about listening to the advocates and the bill was written with lots of input from them.
“We were involved in the wording and how the law now reads,” Elise Joy said. “The legislators were wonderful in partnering with us and meeting with us, recognizing that we are in the schools and working with the students and in communities that are under-resourced and had some expertise in how this should roll out.”
Elise Joy described the awkwardness and embarrassment a girl could feel if she unexpectedly got her period while in class, having to ask a teacher to be excused, having to go see the nurse, and sometimes wait for the nurse. Or, bleeding into your clothing or staying home from school because you don’t have the necessary product.
Emma Joy said that she learned while doing her mitzvah that many girls and women miss out on opportunities in school and work because of their periods.
“That’s why this law is important,” Emma Joy said. “Boys don’t need to find toilet paper. The same should be true of menstrual products. Nobody should have to go to the trouble of finding something. It should be free and available to them.”
Girls Helping Girls. Period has donated more than 3 million products since its founding, a year after Emma’s bat mitzvah. Elise said friends and family, including her husband and a second, younger daughter, had so much fun with the original project they kept it going and created the foundation.
“Originally it was a lot of collections and monetary donations but now we get larger corporations donating products,” Emma Joy said.
The foundation receives a lot of product donations from large companies including Procter & Gamble and Edgewell Personal Care, according to Emma, who is now 23 and a graduate of American University.
“We also do work with menstrual eduction,” Emma said, adding members of the organization go to schools and teach young students about periods and the accompanying products.
“If you don’t know about period poverty, 100 % of the time people are shocked to learn that it is alive and well,” Elise Joy said. “Creating equity in bathrooms allows people to become educated and to go to work without worrying about bleeding through their clothes.”
Mehrota said more and more companies are providing these products to their employees and she would like to see public spaces embrace the policy.
“Once this law goes into effect, it will become the norm,” Mehrota said. “For a student in kindergarten by the time they get into middle school and have a need for these products, they won’t know there was a time when these products weren’t available.”