Bleeding in the Streets: Feminine Hygiene ‘Luxury Items’ Beyond Reach of Homeless Women

For homeless women, getting their monthly periods is one of the most difficult challenges they face. California Assembly Bill 1561 is looking to provide a measure of relief to women and the difficulties they currently are resigned to accept when homeless while menstruating.

“Homeless women not only have a difficult time getting pads or tampons, it can also be hard for them to access sanitary facilities to keep themselves clean,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the bill’s co-sponsor.

AB 1561, which was introduced in January by Garcia and Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar), could mandate the removal of sales tax added to tampons and menstrual pads by the state of California. Currently, the state applies a sales tax to “tangible personal property” which ranges from county to county and can be as high as 9 percent, as was made effective in Los Angeles county in July 2015. These property items imposed with sales taxes are categorized as luxury items by the state. Necessity or non-luxury items are given exemptions from the addition of sales tax, and include medical purchases and groceries. Presently, feminine hygiene products are considered luxury items by the state of California.

AB 1561 proposes a change to the classification of tampons, menstruation pads and other feminine hygiene products to that of medical necessities or non-luxury items, allowing for their exemption to state sales tax. Proponents of the bill stress that sales taxes on feminine hygiene products place an undue burden on women living in poverty and those living on the streets. The proposal brings with it an awareness about the lack of feminine sanitary products available in the shelter system due to limited donations of the pricey items, which leads to exposure to disease and degradation for menstruating homeless women. Beyond AB 1561, Garcia believes more is needed in order to solve the feminine health problems facing homeless women.

“A big problem is that when people make donations to shelters, menstrual products are usually overlooked and they end up being in short supply,” Garcia said. “Thus, we hope through this vehicle we increase public awareness so that people remember that these are important items they should be donating to shelters, nonprofits and food pantries.”

California is one of 40 states in which tampons and menstruation pads are considered luxury items and not a necessity. With the elimination of the sales tax, Garcia’s office estimates an annual savings of $20 million to women in the state. “My team and I are also using this vehicle to have people think of these products as health items and not hygiene products, which is a gross classification,” she said.

Without access to adequate feminine health products and facilities, homeless menstruating women face mental and physical harm. A 2014 study presented to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, showed homeless women reporting degrading conditions by not having access to facilities during their periods as well as great humiliation suffered at exposing themselves by having to use the bathroom outside. The lack of access to sanitary tampons and menstruation pads while on their periods increases the risk for vaginal infections among homeless women.

Bloomberg Business covered this issue in 2013. “Homespun solutions raise the risk of infections that can suppress the reproductive tract’s natural defenses, a weaker immune response can compromise the body’s ability to fight the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, the microbial cause of most cervical cancers,” said Robert Tindle, a professor of immunology at the University of Queensland, in the Bloomberg story.

Hoping to see AB 1561 signed into law by September, Garcia understands that more must be done to protect the health of menstruating homeless women.

“We want to be able to ensure these items are covered by Medi-Cal which homeless people can access,” she said. “We have a number of other bills and campaigns we are working on and are very committed to the long haul.”

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Lisa Martin
 is a candidate for a Master of Public Administration degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the school’s Media for Policy Change course.

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