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On any given month in Maryland, it’s a pretty safe bet that tens of thousands of public school girls are menstruating, given that the average age of menarche (the first period) is 12, and nearly 200,000 of the state’s female students are 12 or older.

More than 40% of those girls come from homes facing financial challenges, according to recent data from the Maryland State Department of Education, with the percentages much higher in places like Baltimore City, and Somerset and Dorchester counties, where 80%, 77% and 70% of public school students, respectively, qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. Such challenges makes it far more likely girls might miss school and important instruction because they don’t have access to the proper hygiene products to get through the day — a form of “period poverty.”

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It’s also pretty likely that a sizeable percentage of those who started reading this editorial didn’t get beyond the word “menstruating,” made too uncomfortable by the idea of this very natural, very normal female function. And that’s unfortunate for a whole host of reasons we’ll get to shortly, but chiefly, for our purposes today, because it’s significant reason we need to legislate access to free period products.

Maryland House Bill 208 — which lists 52 sponsors: 35 women and 17 enlightened men — would require every public school to install dispensers containing free menstrual hygiene products, defined as “size-appropriate tampons or sanitary napkins” in at least two restrooms by October of this year and all restrooms by Aug. 1, 2024.

It’s a common-sense provision — though each dispenser should contain both pads and tampons (it’s a personal preference, there is no “right” age for either) — and it should already be in place to meet the basic needs of half the post-pubescent population. But it isn’t because of stigma. Too many people, male and female, have been taught to be embarrassed about something so very ordinary, treating menstruation as if it’s a medical condition and not a healthy bodily function. And why? Because genitalia is involved? We somehow seem to be able to provide toilet paper widely and readily in public in America without snickering, why not pads? Because they’re just for girls? Shame on us.

The need is real. A 2019 survey commissioned by PERIOD, a youth-led nonprofit focused on ending period poverty and stigma, and Thinx, a New York company that makes absorbent menstruation underwear, found that 80% of teens who menstruate feel ashamed of it, and 76% believe they’re taught more about the biology of frogs than females in school.

What’s more, 1 in 4 said they’ve missed class because they didn’t have access to period products, and 3 in 5 said they’ve worn the same pad or tampon more than four hours because of a lack of access to replacements, putting them at risk for infection or Toxic Shock Syndrome, a dangerous complication of certain types of bacterial infections.

Periods happen anytime, anywhere, and whether a girl — or transgender boy — is unprepared because they can’t afford it or didn’t think ahead is immaterial. They shouldn’t have to have a quarter on them to get access to a necessary hygiene product, if there’s even a pay dispenser available, or be forced to roll up some toilet paper and hope it does the job.

A hearing on the bill is set for Thursday at 1 p.m. in the House Ways and Means Committee. Representatives from about a dozen different advocacy and student groups are expected to attend. We hope they’re heard, and the bill passed. Beyond providing necessary supplies, which is critical, it represents a significant step toward normalizing something that never should have been anything but.

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