This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
Three Somerville High School students are fighting the stigma attached to menstruation.
In February, Samantha Fillmore, Vivian Ferraz and Katia Mathews started a conversation about the often-taboo subject, and created a petition for the school to supply free feminine hygiene products in all of the girls’ restrooms.
Little to no access to these necessary products, they argued, not only hinders academic and social progress but it is just one example of health and gender inequality.
“Without S.A.F.E.T.Y. [Safely Accommodating Free Equity with Tampons Yearly], a gender-equity issue remains since supplies aren’t centrally located, forcing us to spend more time out of class to get them,” they said in
After receiving hundreds of signatures on their petition for S.A.F.E.T.Y, their goal is becoming a reality.
On Monday, March 20, Superintendent of Somerville Public Schools Mary Skipper issued an email stating the dispensing units will be installed in the next week or so.
“We have arranged through Health and Human Service Department and through [Department of Public Works] to get dispensing units ordered for all the SHS girls’ bathrooms,” she wrote. “I applaud that our students raised awareness about this.”
Fillmore said the idea stemmed from past experiences. In a letter to Somerville Public Schools, the 17-year-old said when she asked her teacher to go to the bathroom one day during class, he first said no. As she frantically searched her bag for a tampon, she said she subtly hinted she was on her period so he would let her leave the room.
In order to get the products she needed, she first had to go to the nurse’s office, the restroom, and then back to the room.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Why do we only have tampons and pads stored in the nurse’s office? Why are they not openly available in the location we need them right away: the bathrooms?’” she wrote. “At that moment, I felt … ashamed. Uncomfortable. That I needed to tuck away my body.”
Young women, she continued, are taught to hide their bodies, to hide their periods. Trekking down to the nurse’s office for available products is time-consuming, and carrying bags to and from class as to hide those products can be embarrassing.
“It makes us feel uncomfortable, when we have to … walk down and grab our bags, then go,” Fillmore explained in an interview. “[Menstruation] is something that happens to women. It’s not a disease. It happens to everybody, and it’s important for everyone to understand.”
When history teacher Kevin Dua asked the students what they would change in the school system, Fillmore wanted access to the necessary products, which in turn would create discussion about general and sexual health.
In high school, said Ferraz, there aren’t many positive or productive conversations around sexual health and hygiene.
“It’s important to have equity in the school for health overall,” added Ferraz, 18. “Everyone needs access to these things … to normalize it makes it okay to be human.”
After talking with Fillmore and Ferraz, Mathews, 18, brought up the idea to the school student council. From there, she said, the three created the petition and hung them in all the restrooms in the building.
“A lot of people were into the petitions,” said Mathews. “We printed out 10 sheets, 18 lines on each column. All of them were filled, or at least half of them. There were a lot of signatures.”
They also posted a video online, featuring students around the school. The time women spend getting their products and using the bathroom, they explained, takes away from valuable class time. With more access to these products, more time can be spent learning.
“When I was talking to other students about it, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you, this is great!’” said Fillmore. “It made women more comfortable using the bathrooms in Somerville High.”
Students were eager to join the video production, said Ferraz, out of intrigue and passion.
“We felt like if we didn’t do it now, then who is going to do it after? Let’s get the ball rolling,” she explained. “We’ve always been told we were able to change things, always told our opinions are welcome.”
Mathews said they were ecstatic to receive such a supportive response from Skipper, especially when sometimes it’s hard for students to find enough power to change things.
The project goes hand in hand with a much larger global effort to supply women with accessible and free hygiene products. Founder of the Free the Tampons Foundation Nancy Kramer reached out to Dua to tell him how inspiring it was to see the students involved.
“Thank you so much for sharing,” wrote Kramer. “This is fantastic work…congratulations to the brave young women who took on the issues.”
To have so much support, said Mathews, feels amazing. When adults in power, like Skipper, supply the tools necessary to succeed, it changes things.
And hopefully, she said, the success of this project will inspire other students to spearhead their own.
“Other kids can see that this will lead to a change, and that they can also get that support,” she said.