In 2020, Aanya Patel, a student at Hillsborough High School, launched a nonprofit focused on alleviating period poverty.
In less than two years, she said, her Global Girls Initiative — powered by a GoFundMe campaign and individual and corporate donations — has donated 250,000 menstrual hygiene products to local schools, domestic violence shelters and other community organizations.
Her work also has resulted in a change in her school district. Starting this summer, Hillsborough County Public Schools workers will install menstrual pad dispensers in the bathrooms of high schools where at least 40% of students come from low-income families.
Patel, 16, is finishing her junior year, and though she’s never lacked access to period supplies, she said it’s important to focus her efforts on her peers.
“Growing up without period products can really affect confidence levels, your physical and mental health, your ability to participate in sports and get an education,” she said this week, ahead of Saturday, which is internationally recognized as Menstrual Hygiene Day.
More than a third of those menstruating missed school, work or appointments because they lacked items such as pads or tampons, according to a study commissioned last year by U by Kotex. Most who went without said they couldn’t afford products, and a quarter of those surveyed said the pandemic made it harder for them to obtain products. Nearly a quarter of Black and Hispanic women said they had trouble affording period products. Those numbers marked increases from a similar 2018 survey.
When Patel made her first donation to the school district, she found that schools wouldn’t allow products in the bathrooms, she said. Students had to go to the nurse’s office — a requirement that could expose kids to embarrassment or bullying, said Karen Perez, a Hillsborough County School Board member.
Perez saw period poverty during her career as a social worker: in families that couldn’t afford food or an electrical bill, she said, girls were using toilet paper or old rags, “the same thing they end up doing in third-world countries.” When she ran for office, she was struck by how little funding the district provided for students facing period poverty.
“If you want a child in a seat at the school,” Perez said, “you have to make some adjustments in our budget to be able to assist for that child to remain in that seat.”
Patel has received grants for the new dispensers, along with material donations from Procter & Gamble and local printing firm OAI Corp. Perez said she hopes the presence of menstrual supplies normalizes them as a hygienic asset for students, no different from paper towels or soap. Should the dispensers prove useful, Perez and Patel said, the district will work to expand the program to other high schools and middle schools.
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Patel hopes her nonprofit’s reach grows. Though she’s focused on Hillsborough for now, she’s considered moving into Pasco and Pinellas counties. She plans to bring the work with her to college, wherever that may be. (For now, her mother, Rina, is the nonprofit’s president.)
And she noted an interest in legislative efforts that would ensconce students’ access to period supplies. A bill that would have required Florida schools to provide free menstrual supplies in nurses’ offices died in committee this year. New York Democratic Rep. Grace Meng introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act to Congress last year in an effort to expand access, but Congress has taken no action on it.
Patel said she wants her work to stand as an example to other teens looking to make a difference.
“It honestly just started as a GoFundMe where I was going to reach out to friends and family,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to break even 1,000 pads.”