Providing hygiene supplies for women and girls in public restrooms for free is an idea that is taking hold on college campuses across the country, and in a growing number of cities. While New York City became the first to pass legislation earlier this year to provide tampons and pads at no cost in its public schools, women's shelters and jails; an idea in Columbus could potentially make a difference for women and girls in Cleveland.
For Nancy Kramer, a Columbus digital marketing entrepreneur, a visit to the Apple Corporate Headquarters was a lightbulb moment - one that ultimately inspired an initiative she calls 'Free the Tampons.'
"The first time I walked into the restrooms at Apple's corporate headquarters in 1982 was the first time I'd seen tampons and pads freely accessible in a public restroom.. and I thought, why isn't it like that everyplace?" said Kramer. "To me, tampons and pads are just like toilet paper. It's the exact same thing. It's there to attend to our normal bodily functions, and women have no control over an unexpected start to their period."
Nearly all women have been there. A recent study found 86 percent of women ages 18 to 54 had started their period unexpectedly in public and 79 percent had to improvise a tampon or pad.
"We have created this whole social norm that requires women to be prepared anytime, any day, any place...and we have not created a social norm that requires us all to carry around toilet paper."
One concern about offering these supplies for free is that girls will help themselves to a dozen instead of one or two pads they need. This hasn't found to be a problem in New York City, but a Cleveland company has been working on a solution.
"It's a women's health issue..it's a bathroom equality issue...it's a sexual equality issue."
Bill Hemann said the dispensers that Hospeco produces hadn't changed much for decades, making hygiene products available for a quarter in restrooms. Now they're designing equipment to dispense for free, but also make it difficult for one person to empty the machine.
The machines could make a difference in Cleveland for girls living in poverty. The rate is about 50 percent, and the dollars required to take care of their monthly needs may be hard to come by, resulting in absences from school to avoid embarrassment. A study on the impact of the availability of the free supplies in New York City found the initiative improved girls attendance.
The numbers are not a surprise to Cleveland Clinic Adolescent Medicine Specialist Veronica Issac.
"I think it makes sense... It keeps them in school, don't have to worry about having accidents at school, and don't have to worry about missing school for a week every month."
Kramer said the menstrual cycle could be a barrier to a young girl attending school, "because of the humiliation and lack of dignity, and the consequences of not having access to those items."
She also thinks it could send a positive message to young girls. "Ultimately, it sends a message to girls that their needs matter... so this is an idea that could take root."
Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland says she thinks it's a conversation that can and should begin.
"It's a question of health, of gender equity, a question of dignity."
Councilwoman Cleveland added that the solution might not be legislative, but more likely a private and public sector effort.