An advocate for menstrual equity

Student Amanda Safi helped get a new California law passed that requires public schools to stock restrooms with free menstrual products—a move activists say is a first step toward rectifying the discrimination, stigma, and financial, educational, and health consequences faced by those who menstruate

Sophomore Amanda Safi (College Ten, politics), who worked on a coalition pushing for menst

Sophomore Amanda Safi (College Ten, politics), who worked on a coalition pushing for menstrual equity in California, saw success when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 367 into law. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Growing up the daughter of immigrants in a traditional Syrian household, Amanda Safi learned not to speak in public about menstruation.  

“It was something you hid, something to be ashamed of,” said the 19-year-old College Ten sophomore majoring in politics at UC Santa Cruz.

Fast-forward to October 2021, when Safi’s work on a coalition pushing for menstrual equity in California saw Gov. Gavin Newsom sign AB 367 into law. The unfunded mandate requires all public schools grades 6–12, along with community and state universities, to stock restrooms with free menstrual products starting this year. (The bill excluded UC campuses.) The measure’s passage is what menstrual activists like Safi believe is a first step toward rectifying the discrimination, stigma, and financial, educational, and health consequences faced by those who menstruate.

People don’t need to buy toilet paper and soap when they go into a public restroom, Safi said. “Just the idea of needing a quarter to pay for a necessary biological event is kind of ridiculous.” 

Safi’s roots as a period equity activist began her senior year at Aragon High School in San Mateo County. There, she became bothered by stories from her friends, like the classmate whose menstrual period started during a physics test, could find no tampons or pads in the school restroom and sat bleeding through her clothes as she completed the exam. Not only was it hard for the girl to concentrate on the test, Safi said, but when she left school to go home to change, she received an unexcused absence for doing it.  

About the same time, Safi said, she read the book Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement by Nadya Okamoto, which detailed the discrimination and health and education consequences around menstruation and also laid out ways to engage in activism around the topic.

According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union titled The Unequal Price of Periods, for example, those who menstruate can spend $1,000 over a lifetime on period products, placing a burden on those with low incomes. In addition, not only do some states tax tampons and pads while not taxing things like dandruff shampoo, for instance, but public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also don’t cover the purchase of menstrual products, the report noted. The result is those who can’t afford to buy menstrual products may resort to makeshift barriers like toilet paper or cardboard or they may use tampons longer than is recommended, leading to infections or a sometimes-fatal condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome, the report said.

The lack of menstrual supplies also may lead students to miss school and also feel shame whenever they are menstruating, said the report. For one in five American teenagers who live in poverty, the report noted, a lack of menstrual products and support can lead to lost educational opportunity. 

Safi decided she could no longer stand by and do nothing. She founded the Period Project and approached school officials and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about having free menstrual products readily available in public high school restrooms in the region.  She also enlisted the support of U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA 14th District).  

Last year, San Mateo County supervisors approved $20,000 to fund a pilot project to supply free menstrual products in two low-income schools in the area. Speier also provided $5,000 from her own campaign funds to kickstart the project at Jefferson High School in Daly City.

“I applaud Amanda for her determination and commitment to provide her fellow students with period products and fight the stigma around menstruation,” said Speier. “She understands what a lack of access to these products can mean. … Our students should be focused on learning, not worrying about where to get a pad or a tampon during class time.”

After her local success, Safi joined the statewide coalition to push for passage of AB 367. One day, she said, she hopes a similar measure may be approved on a national basis.

Her advocacy work has not only diminished her earlier stigma around menstruation — she said she now openly carries period products on her way to a restroom — but it has given her a feeling of power.

“A lot of the time, growing up [in a traditional household], I felt like I didn’t have a voice and felt like I wasn’t heard,” said the first-generation college student. “It was a product of having conflicting values and wanting my own independence. I started to volunteer with this political campaign as a way to get my own voice heard.

“I found the power of my voice.”