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Virginia Menstrual Equity – Holly Seibold of BRAWS

(Jan. 3, 2018) Catherine Read interviews Holly Siebold, founder of Bringing Resources and Aid to Women’s Shelters (BRAWS), and Shaheen Khurama, head of the BRAWS Advocacy Committee. They are a non-partisan coalition, composed of groups and individuals with interest in menstrual equity. They believe that access to safe menstrual products is a matter of human dignity and public health.

Shaheen KhuranaThe advocacy committee, notes Khurama, has a mission to support public policy initiatives that have three main objectives. First, they want to expand access to menstrual products in schools, women’s shelters and correctional facilities. Second, they aim to make menstrual products more affordable by making them tax-free or allowing the products to be included in Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) Benefits, and by adding eligibility of these items for refundable tax credits. Lastly, they aim to make the products safer by requiring manufacturers to list the materials used in the products.

Author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, in her book Periods Gone Public, coined the term “menstrual equity”, where she talks about the stigma of openly talking about menstrual cycles. She also notes that women and girls do not have equal opportunities for success in cultures throughout the world because of how they are treated or isolated during their menstrual cycles. This book caught on with female grassroots activists in the US. Although women don’t face many of the obvious problems that occur in other world cultures, female advocates did find parallels and wanted to start a grass roots movement to change the culture around menstrual cycles.

In an effort to educate girls about this issue, Seibold shares that BRAWS has started a teen leadership council, where girls from Elementary, Middle and High Schools come together and learn how to talk openly about periods. They are then ambassadors, as they return to their home schools and hold conversations about periods with their peers. BRAWS aims to educate the next generation and take away the stigma about periods, using proper terminology, as well as having free products available in bathrooms and clinics at schools. BRAWS has heard from girls who have had to leave school because they get their period and don’t have access to products to manage their menstruation. This is something that can and should be addressed.

In the upcoming Virginia Legislative session, there are three bills being introduced to address the goals of BRAWS. Del. Kaye Kory is introducing HB 83, which would require correctional facilities to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge to inmates. ( update: since the interview this bill has passed through both the House and the Senate and is awaiting signature from the Governor).

Del. Jennifer Boysko introduced two other bills designed to provide tax-free purchases of sanitary products, HB 24 and the complementary bill HB 25. HB 24 would make them permanently tax-free, and HB 25 would make products tax-free during the back to school tax-free holiday (update: both of these bills failed to make it out of the House).

The Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition has brought together women’s advocacy groups from around the Commonwealth. These are not partisan groups, they are simply women from all across the state who want to advance the agenda of de-stigmatization of menstrual cycles and increased access to feminine hygiene products.   BRAWS encourages women to contact their legislators (state and federal) to help advance their goals to make these products safer and more affordable. The coalition is thrilled to have the support of Gov. Ralph Northam, and hopes that with his medical background he can help raise the profile of these issues.  On the Federal level, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) has legislation moving through Capitol Hill to require ingredient labeling for feminine hygiene products. You can follow the progress of all of this legislation on the BRAWS website and on the Facebook page of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition.

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