Gotham Gazette Tue, 25 Jun 2019 14:12:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health Eric Adams Brooklyn women's health

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

Tampons. Periods. Breastfeeding. Hot flashes.

These terms, and others relevant to women’s health, have traditionally been considered taboo — inappropriate for polite conversation and therefore left unmentioned. That silence has had serious consequences for women and girls, who are denied access to feminine hygiene products, charged more at the cash register for “women’s” versions of household items, and made to feel ashamed about their bodies.

This taboo extends to sexual health, with terrible costs for young adults who have been denied information about reproduction, contraception, and healthy relationships. As a result, the United States has disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and domestic violence.

The lack of healthy dialogue on these matters has delivered unhealthy results. Thankfully, strong leaders are stepping up and speaking out, and we’re beginning to see the benefits. Through the leadership of elected officials such as State Senator Sue Serino and Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, with support from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the New York State Legislature recently voted to eliminate the sales tax on tampons, sanitary napkins, and other feminine hygiene products. (Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to sign the bill).

Just as we provide an exemption from the sales tax for necessities such as groceries and clothing, feminine hygiene products will be properly defined as necessities for women who menstruate, not luxuries. The exemption will particularly assist low-income New Yorkers who have had to choose between or ration such basic necessities due to their limited resources.

New York City now has an opportunity to build on the momentum from this achievement. The City Council is preparing to hold a hearing on a critical proposal by Council Member Ferreras-Copeland and Speaker Mark-Viverito to offer feminine hygiene products for free in public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.

This is a logical extension of our shared interest in promoting common-sense public health measures, both physical and psychological. Consider that a girl in school who has her period but is not carrying tampons or pads must visit a guidance counselor or the school nurse and explain her situation, often needing to negotiate hall passes and having to wait to be seen - the entire experience seems to have been intended to maximize embarrassment and class time missed. In jail, each woman receives a very limited supply of feminine hygiene products each month while additional supplies are sold for extortionate prices at the commissary; many must improvise with rolled-up toilet paper, a humiliating and unhealthy situation. Any woman or girl who is forced to use menstrual items for long stretches of time, due to issues of access or affordability, is put at higher risk for cervical cancer, toxic shock syndrome, and other concerns resulting from product overuse.

We need action at all levels of government. In homeless shelters, many women and girls simply cannot afford to buy feminine hygiene products, as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and flexible spending accounts disallow such purchases. Legislation such as the Fund Essential Menstruation (FEM) Products Act of 2015 from Representative Grace Meng, which would reclassify feminine hygiene products to allow for purchase with flexible spending accounts, is essential to move forward and should be a bipartisan priority. For starters, we should ensure that every member of the New York State congressional delegation gets behind the bill.

These initiatives are critical to eliminating inequities that undermine the position of women in our civil society. A recent report from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), for example, documented that products sold to women cost seven percent more on average than nearly identical products sold to men. This includes basic hygiene products such as shaving razors. We have a shared responsibility, men and women alike, to demand that these disparities end now. Companies that continue this behavior need to be called out in the public arena and pressured to answer for these discrepancies.

We must continue to drive the conversation about gender equity, especially around women’s health, to break the silence and remove the taboos. When I became Brooklyn borough president, I was deeply concerned that women who have recently had children are often ostracized for breastfeeding and pumping milk at work or in public areas, despite the fact that the law protects their right to this practice. I was proud to open our lactation lounge at Brooklyn Borough Hall last year, as part of the Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone initiative by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), so women in Downtown Brooklyn have a comfortable lounge in which to breastfeed or pump milk. And, we are able to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and to celebrate the practice.

I am now pressing forward with City Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Jr., and Corey Johnson (the latter are two of the standout male leaders in the fight for advancing women’s health) on a proposal to require the City to create dedicated space for nursing moms in a range of municipal government offices that serve the public, such as New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) job centers and New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) borough offices.

This conversation should include the entirety of women’s lives. Our society has often avoided discussion of menopause, depriving many women of information about the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and an awareness of available treatments. In our celebration of Women’s History Month this past March, Council Member Cumbo and I organized a day of panel discussions and workshops to speak with women about every stage of life and to start a conversation surrounding the natural changes that occur in life, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. For some, it was the first time anyone had engaged them on these topics. We ask businesses and other institutions to follow suit and to reasonably accommodate these life transitions.

The days of relegating women’s health to second-class status or worse are over, and our laws and policies must reflect that for every stage of a woman’s life. Men, who still write most of those laws and policies, have a responsibility to join in this conversation and to insist on fairness and equality.

Eric Adams is the president of Brooklyn. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health Wed, 01 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools Gibson Ferreras-Copeland Mark-Viverito hearing

Council Members Gibson, Ferreras-Copeland, Mark-Viverito (l-r) (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council is about to take the next step toward making feminine hygiene products readily available, and free, in New York City public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities. On Thursday, June 2, the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues will hold its first hearing on a package of bills to improve access to tampons and pads after the legislation was introduced in March.

The three bills are being spearheaded by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the lead sponsors, and the hearing will come as New York State is set to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” - the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Representatives from the city agencies that would carry out the new mandates outlined in the bills and relevant advocacy groups have been asked to testify - leaders from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Education, and the Department of Correction will attend the hearing, as will representatives from ZanaAfrica Foundation, UnTabooed, and PowerPlay NYC. Representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, the YMCA, and other groups that participated in a roundtable discussion about access to menstrual products with Ferreras-Copeland last summer may be present as well.

Women who filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to end the tax on menstrual productsand Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national and international voice calling for better access to menstrual products, have also been invited to testify.

During the hearing, questions about the logistics and costs of implementing the mandates will be addressed. According to her office, Ferreras-Copeland looks forward to hearing from the de Blasio administration about its views on the bills and the current policies of the relevant agencies in terms of access to menstrual products. Ferreras-Copeland, who is likely to lead the hearing with Mark-Viverito and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the women’s issues committee, is also looking to hear what barriers there may be in implementation of the requirements in the bills.

It is not yet clear how tampons and pads will be provided to women and girls in city shelters, jails, and schools, though no-charge dispensers have already been installed in the girls’ bathrooms of 25 middle schools and high schools in the city through a pilot program, and Ferreras-Copeland has previously mentioned the possibility of installing dispensers in shelters.

The three bills in the package are accompanied by a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, calling on the state to exempt feminine hygiene products from all state and local sales taxes, which the state is poised to do - on Wednesday, state lawmakers passed a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tax on retail sales, prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to release a statement saying, “I look forward to signing it into law.”

The Council bills and the elimination of New York’s “tampon tax” contribute to a growing movement to de-stigmatize menstruation and improve gender equity, as women end up paying hundreds of dollars in taxes buying tampons and pads throughout their lifetime, despite the fact that women cannot avoid buying the products. Fourteen states and three major cities have introduced legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products since January, though few cities or states have taken action to make the products more freely available.

The city push to make feminine hygiene products freely available to the city’s most vulnerable women - students and those in prisons and shelters - is meant to correct the disparity that when men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions while women are not. While some have questioned the price tag involved, Ferreras-Copeland has said time and again, “I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper.”

One bill, introduced by Ferreras-Copeland, would require all schools to make feminine hygiene products readily available to students and would require DOHMH to provide schools with a supply of tampons and pads that is adequate to meet the needs of the student body.

In September 2015, Ferreras-Copeland and the High School for Arts and Business in Queens launched a pilot program of free tampons and pads by installing a free dispenser in the girls’ bathroom. In March, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE expanded that program to 25 middle and high schools in Queens and the Bronx, providing access to free tampons and pads to the 11,600 girls attending the schools in the program.The principal at Arts and Business attributes a 2.4 percent increase in attendance rates in the months after the dispenser was installed to tampons and pads being freely available. Previously, when girls got their period and weren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often had to miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

Ferreras-Copeland says the DOE has been receptive and that conversations with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have been productive, although the cost of freely providing menstrual products was initially raised as a concern.

Another bill, introduced by Speaker Mark-Viverito, would require DOHMH to provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters (here meaning Department of Homeless Services family shelters and single adult women shelters, Department of Youth and Community Development shelters, and Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters).

Tampons and pads are often in short supply in the city’s shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase the products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng of Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

The third bill, also introduced by Mark-Viverito, would require the Department of Correction to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request, “unless so providing would be unsafe, in which case products would be required as soon as possible.” This would be a slight, but potentially significant change to the current DOC policy, as it would allow women a form of recourse if their requests are denied. Currently, additional supplies are available upon request, but inmates allege that their requests are sometimes denied by correction officers for no legitimate reason or because those products are understocked in jails, forcing women to ration pads.

Under DOC’s current policy, each housing unit of female inmates in Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center is given a box of 144 sanitary napkins each week (housing units hold up to fifty women, meaning each woman may get two to three pads a week - pads that are small and thin), according to an August, 2015 letter from DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mark-Viverito and Ferreas-Copeland and shared with Gotham Gazette. Ponte said in the letter that he had “not heard of any issues or complaints regarding access to these items.”

Others say that’s not the case. During a roundtable discussion on access to feminine hygiene products last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle” and stories from women who have had “to show soiled pads before they get the new ones,” both of which are harmful to a woman’s menstrual health and dignity.

In an April interview, Ferreras-Copeland said her original idea was to have coin-free dispensers installed in women’s prisons as well, but “there was fear that the actual vending machine could be used as a weapon,” and so that option was scrapped.One county in Wisconsin approved a resolution last year authorizing Dane County to begin a pilot program to provide tampons and pads for free via coin-free dispensers in the restrooms of eight county buildings, including a correctional facility. Ferreras-Copeland added that she did not want to legislate the number of pads the DOC must provide to women because “who am I to say how many they need, I just want to make sure that they have enough.”

On Wednesday, Ferreras-Copeland expressed excitement about the upcoming hearing to Gotham Gazette, but was not available for a follow-up interview.

Weiss-Wolf said in a statement that she is looking forward to testifying next week. “The bills’ sponsors...and others,” she wrote, “have taken an important step by acknowledging that the ability to access and afford menstrual products is a necessity for half the population, and that it is impossible to be an engaged student or productive citizen without these products.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax' linda rosenthal julissa ferreras copeland

Assembly Member Rosenthal, right, and Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo)

A difference of a few words is all that stands in the way of New York State becoming the sixth in the nation to exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax, though that could soon change. The Assembly sponsor of the bill, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she and state Senator Sue Serino, the Senate sponsor of the bill that has slightly different language, have agreed on new amendments that will make their bills identical.

However, Serino’s office declined to comment as to whether or not the two had actually reached an agreement, raising doubts about whether a compromise had truly been reached on an issue that is so strongly supported that both houses unanimously passed the bills to eliminate the so-called ‘tampon tax.’

Rosenthal said that, having agreed upon a few amendments to the legislation, the bill will head to the Governor “probably next week” after moving through both houses. Rosenthal is in the Assembly’s Democratic majority, Serino in the Senate Republican majority. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has already expressed his support for the legislation and will sign a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tampon tax if and when it does reach his desk. The Legislature has just 15 days of legislative session left before its June end.

In March, the Assembly passed Rosenthal’s bill to exempt “feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, sanitary napkins, tampons, and panty liners,” from the state sales tax. In February, Serino introduced the same bill as Rosenthal, yet amended it some time after “to specifically exempt sanitary napkins and tampons from the tax,” according to a press release from Serino’s office. The Senate then passed that more limited version of Serino’s bill in April.

News of the bill’s passage in the Senate was met with celebration, and many outlets incorrectly reporting that the same bill had passed both houses and was heading to Cuomo’s desk.

Yet, the slight but significant difference between the two bills means legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products can’t be signed into law by Cuomo - not until the language is identical.

According to Rosenthal, after speaking with Serino last week, the two agreed upon a few amendments to the bills that would make the two identical. “We put back other feminine hygiene products and added panty liners,” Rosenthal said on Thursday. The tax exemption “will include feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, tampons, sanitary napkins, and panty liners, because the world of products to meet the needs of women menstruating is actually expanding right now, so we didn’t want to have to revisit this at some point. It will be done,” Rosenthal said.

Organizations like NOW-NYC and the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York (both of which either supported Rosenthal’s bill or lobbied for its passage) would prefer the more inclusive language of Rosenthal’s bill become the law.

“Obviously it’s always better if it’s more inclusive, but I don’t know what the mechanics of putting it into place are,” Jean Bucaria, deputy director of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette.

“In instances like this, we of course support the broadest possible version of this legislation that helps the most people,” said Danielle Castaldi-Micca, director of political and governmental affairs for the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York.

It may be the case that Serino and other lawmakers prefer the more specific language of the Senate bill because the fiscal impact of exempting only those two products (pads and tampons) from the state sales tax is easier to predict and account for.

However, both Bucaria and Castaldi-Micca believe a compromise is likely to happen. “I have confidence that they’re going to get to a point of agreement and a single bill that the governor can sign,” Castaldi-Micca said. In Albany, deals are often elusive until the very end of session, when a bill package known as a “big ugly” gets passed at the last minute before lawmakers leave town for the rest of the year.

Besides amending the language of the bill to leave room for less-common, reusable menstrual products like sponges, cloth pads, and menstrual cups, Rosenthal says she and Serino have also agreed on an amendment to change the time when the exemption will go into effect, and an amendment to make the exemption exist in it’s own section of the tax code, rather than lump the exemption for feminine hygiene products in with exemptions for medical products.

Initially, the bill was to go into effect immediately, but “we changed that because there are four state tax reporting periods, so it will go into effect during one of those, it’s just easier to align it,” Rosenthal said.

In tax law, the coming exemption for feminine hygiene products, Rosenthal says, “stands on it’s own, it’s its own little section, it’s not connected with the other tax exemptions. It was a regressive tax on women and their bodies and it’s related to a natural biological function, so it shouldn’t be viewed as a medical problem or anything else, so it has it’s own line - section 3A.”

It seems some movement has indeed been made on Rosenthal’s version of the bill - according to the Senate website, on May 11, the bill was recalled from the Senate, returned to the Assembly, and amended on third reading. The latest version of the bill in the Assembly does indeed include all of the amendments Rosenthal mentioned above: it would take effect on the first day of a sales tax quarterly period; it would add a new section to the tax code, rather than lumping it in with drugs and medicine; and it maintains the more inclusive language.

These amendments have not yet been included in the Senate version of the bill, according to the Senate’s website, and no changes have been made to the bill since it passed in the Senate last month.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax' Fri, 13 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000