Farah Rosaleen and Sarah Pazokian, both 17-year-old rising seniors at Green Hope High School in Wake County, want to take the taboo out of tampons and pads. 

The students are working to destigmatize periods with their nonprofit Period Project NC, a journey they started last year in an effort to put free, donated period products such as pads and tampons in public school bathrooms. 

“Sarah and I have [each] had experiences [at school] where we bled through our pants and had to go home,” Rosaleen explains bluntly. “We thought, ‘Oh, this is a problem a lot of people have had. It’s just not that talked about.’” 

The two approached their then-principal about putting free pads and tampons in the school’s bathrooms. The administrator was initially on board, Rosaleen says, but soon started having second thoughts. The teenagers aren’t sure why, but they say the principal expressed some concerns about high schoolers misusing the products or being at risk of toxic shock syndrome (a rare condition that can occur from leaving a tampon in too long). 

More likely, their principal was worried about potential backlash, says Rosaleen. It’s speculation, but in recent years, North Carolina schools have been under intense political scrutiny. Supporting discussions of sex education, or even biological realities such as menstruation, could easily turn into a public firestorm. 

For girls and women statewide, however, getting a period isn’t a subject of controversy—it’s an inevitable monthly experience that has to be dealt with. And Rosaleen and Pazokian want to make it easier for elementary, middle, and high school students to get the supplies they need during the day. 

There is some state funding available in North Carolina for public schools to purchase period products like tampons, pads, and even menstrual cups. In 2021, the state legislature started the Feminine Hygiene Products Grant Program, which provided $250,000 to school districts on a first-come, first-served basis. The money ran out in under one week. 

Last year, the state continued the program, providing grants of up to $5,000 to 35 public school districts and 31 charter schools. The state again exhausted the funding available, receiving more than 100 applications for the grant in about a week. While both Durham and Orange County school districts were awarded grant funds, Wake County was not (and it’s unclear whether administrators applied). 

“Our schools struggle every day to meet the needs of girls who have no feminine products at home,” stated Durham Public Schools’ 2022 grant application. The cost of providing period products each year to students in need “would surpass $5,000,” the application added. 

“Many schools have community partnerships that have assisted with this great demand. With that said, this is not sustainable for these schools, and each year the support ebbs and flows, whilst the demand continues to rise.”

Her story

Rosaleen and Pazokian each got their periods young, around age 11 or 12. For Pazokian, the experience was pretty traumatic. She knew she was bleeding, but she didn’t know what a period was or what was happening.

“I just went to school,” Pazokian says. “I bled through my pants. I bled on my chair. It was really horrible.”

With help from her teacher, Pazokian was able to get some pads from the school counselor. But that experience—having to leave class abruptly, go through adults to get what she needed—stuck with her. Likewise, at Green Hope, pads were once only available at the front office. If you got an unpleasant surprise in the middle of class, you had to cross campus and ask a school administrator for supplies. 

“It’s a lot of hassle,” Pazokian says. “It takes a lot of time away from your class time, your education. And it’s also telling the teacher why you’re going to be gone for that amount of time.” 

Across the globe, the number of youth who miss school due to a lack of period products is about one in 10, according to a 2014 UNESCO report. Even in the United States, where period products are plentiful, students or their parents may not be able to afford them. In North Carolina, about one in four teenagers has missed class due to lack of period products, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies. 

Credit: Photo by Brett Villena

When Green Hope got a new principal, Alison Cleveland, last year, the girls again approached her about installing period product dispensers in the bathrooms. They tried to keep the proposal as simple and straightforward as possible, lobbying only for pads instead of pads and tampons. This time, they got a firm yes. 

“The need was definitely there in our school,” Pazokian says. “A lot of our friends had had similar experiences of bleeding through. So from the female population of our school, especially, we got a lot of support and people were very open to it.”

The response from the boys in school has been more mixed, Rosaleen adds. Some classmates thought it was weird when a male student supported Rosaleen and Pazokian’s endeavor. That’s a problem, Rosaleen says, because “we do have a lot of support from girls, but boys are half of the population. They also have to be a support.” 

“People think it should be something women should have to fix,” Pazokian adds. “That the burden should be on us …. And now, especially, more girls’ periods are irregular. Not everyone knows exactly when they’re going to get their period, so it can be hard to be prepared or know … ‘I should especially be stocked up around this time.’”

Expanding the project

Rosaleen and Pazokian’s success at Green Hope has helped them a lot as they try to get dispensers installed at other schools. Once principals learn one public high school has already implemented the duo’s vision, they’re more open to the idea, says Rosaleen. Getting dispensers installed in the first school, Green Hope, was the hardest part, she adds.

In an effort to expand their operation, the teenagers recruited about 120 “ambassadors” who advocate for the project in their own schools and help restock the dispensers. 

“It definitely helps,” says Pazokian. “The more ambassadors we have in a school, then the more likely that will be the school that we implement into next … If we don’t [attend] the high school, we aren’t as trusted. But if it’s someone from their own school who says, ‘This is a need I’ve seen,’ then that’s better.”

Today, the duo has successfully installed dispensers at Panther Creek High School in addition to Green Hope. This coming school year, they will also expand the project to Apex Friendship High School and Lowe’s Grove Middle School (in Durham). Rosaleen is especially excited about installing dispensers at Lowe’s Grove, she says, because the school has a significant population of economically disadvantaged students. 

Students at Green Hope High School Credit: Photo courtesy of Farah Rosaleen

Period Project NC isn’t only about providing free period products to students who can’t afford them, but the need is definitely there, Rosaleen and Pazokian say. About 40 percent of women in the United States struggle to afford period products, according to the Ballard Center. Pads and tampons can cost up to $240 per year, according to the National Association for Women. And taxes on period products, like the 4.75 percent tax in North Carolina, only increase unaffordability. 

“I remember our first week, all [the dispensers] were completely empty,” Rosaleen says. “That was the best feeling, because I did wonder if people were actually going to care or use them.”

Rosaleen and Pazokian say they hope to continue to expand the project and install dispensers in more schools across the state. They’re always looking for more ambassadors, as well as continually accepting donations for the purchase of dispensers and period products. 

This summer, Rosaleen also traveled overseas to donate period products to a school in rural Bangladesh. One day, she hopes to become an OB/GYN to advocate for women’s health and provide essential care to women in Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries. But even in the United States, we have a long way to go. 

Providing free period products to students “levels the playing field,” Rosaleen says. It also sends a message to female students that their education is just as much a priority as their male peers’, Pazokian adds. The positive response the project has received proves it’s needed, the duo says. 

“It’s just very securing to know that I don’t have to worry about my period when I’m at school,” Rosaleen says. “At Green Hope especially, not a lot of the students are thinking about the fact that there are people at this school who can’t afford period products. It gives me peace of mind knowing that they have peace of mind.”

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.   

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