For New York resident Emily Torres, 16, being able to access free tampons and pads at her high school has been a godsend.  

"It's a backup plan I always know is there," she says. "I don't need to worry about having money on me. Even if it's only 25 or 50 cents."

Torres attends the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, the first of 25 public schools across New York's outer boroughs to introduce a pilot project to provide free pads and tampons for 11,600 students. 

Emily Torres

Emily Torres is one of 300,000 New York City students who will benefit from free menstrual hygiene products in public schools. (Gloria Torres)

On June 21, New York city council unanimously passed a bill to expand on that program to provide free feminine hygiene products to all public schools, prisons and shelters such as family shelters. That bill will become law when it is signed by Mayor Bill DeBlasio on July 13. 

New York will be the first U.S. city in the U.S. to do so, as part of a growing "menstrual equity" movement that's gaining ground across the country.

Supporters of menstrual equity say that for low-income women and girls, the inability to access tampons and pads is a barrier to full and equal participation in society.

Canada removed its "pink tax" on tampons last summer.

But activist Jill Piebiak of Canadian Menstruators, the group that petitioned for the removal of the tax, says the country has not moved beyond "informal talk" on getting free products to those who need them.

In New York, Torres says, "I'm so excited." She will be among 300,000 students to benefit from the new bill. "I can't wait to see this program expand." 

Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, a New York City council member, spearheaded the pilot program and proposed the bill. Placing dispensers in 800 schools will cost the city $3.7 million, with a yearly upkeep cost of approximately $1.9 million. 

"Periods have been stigmatized for too long," says Ferreras-Copeland. She says menstrual products are "as necessary as toilet paper," 

South Carolina and Dane County, Wisconsin, which includes the city of Madison, have also introduced bills to increase access to feminine hygiene products for low-income and vulnerable populations. A city councillor in Columbus, Ohio, is pushing for a similar law. 

Mayor plans to sign the law

On the state level, California is considering joining 10 states — including Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that have abolished a tax on tampons.

The U.S. laws are "big achievements" in the fight for menstrual equality, and for "a fully engaged society," says menstrual activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. 

"We have to make sure that menstruation isn't an obstacle for poor people or those who are otherwise challenged in accessing these products," says Weiss-Wolf.

She says she began her work in the movement to start a national dialogue on the issue. "This is half the population we're talking about."

Hillary Clinton supports this move

Last December, NPR called 2015 The Year of the Period. In January, U.S. President Barack Obama said he did not understand why tampons should be taxed as "luxury items" in an interview with AJ Plus. And in April, Newsweek Magazine featured a close-up shot of a tampon for its cover story about menstrual activism.

For Torres, the benefits of free tampons and pads are more than monetary.

"Having to leave class and worry about going around, asking for a tampon, or going to the nurse to wait to get what I need — all of that takes away from my education."

The growing movement has also shed more light on the challenges faced by menstruators who live on the streets or in shelters.

Karisha

'Having my period is one of the hardest possible times for me out here,' says Karisha, a homeless woman in Washington, D.C. (Kira Wakeam/CBC)

"There's no harder time for me than when I'm on my period," says Karisha, a woman living in a homeless encampment in downtown Washington, D.C.

Without access to tampons and pads, she says, "I have to use a wad of toilet paper and run back and forth to McDonald's, to Starbucks. The shelter don't give none out."

U.S. federal legislation sought

That may change for Karisha soon, thanks to New York Congresswoman Grace Meng, who is pushing for menstrual equity legislation at the federal level. 

In March, she convinced the Federal Emergency Management Agency to add tampons and pads to the list of items that homeless shelters and assistance programs can purchase with federal emergency grant funding. She has since approached other government agencies to do the same. 

Her office also introduced legislation to allow people to use tax-free savings to purchase tampons and pads as medical expenses.

"What we're trying to do is supplement what other folks are doing on the national level and see how we can help women and girls across the country," she says.

Newsweek cover story

Meng told CBC News her team is also taking a look at a possible tax credit for households that purchase menstrual hygiene products. 

The Canadian government's decision to axe the federal tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products has been lauded by activists in the U.S. and Britain.

Piebiak, the founder of Canadian Menstruators, says she hopes the progress south of the border will inspire Canadians to continue to advance women's causes, including menstrual equity.

"We have poverty, we have the need. Of course Canadian women would benefit from easier access to menstruation products." 

Tampons

A box of hundreds of tampons awaits distribution at a donation drive for homeless and low-income women in Los Angeles. (Kira Wakeam/CBC)

Corrections

  • In a caption under the first photo in a previous version of the story, the woman on the right was identified as Helen Rosenthal. In fact, the woman is Linda B. Rosenthal.
    Jul 11, 2016 10:37 AM ET