One of the bills before the Legislature this session began in a bathroom.
The sixth grade girls’ bathroom at Albuquerque Academy.
It was a place of shame and discomfort, said Sophia Liem, a senior who has attended the private college prep school since sixth grade.
In her earlier years at the school, she was scared to walk into that bathroom, anxious her classmates would assume she was on her period, she said. Liem didn’t feel comfortable tearing open the plastic casing of a menstrual pad within earshot of others, so she waited until everyone else had emptied out.
The experience inspired Liem and three other Albuquerque Academy students — Noor Ali, Marly Fisher and Mireya Macías — to persuade school administrators to provide free menstrual products in bathrooms as part of their work on the student senate.
The effort was a success, Liem said, and sixth graders across campus responded by plastering one of the bathroom walls with sticky notes expressing their thanks.
The experience gave the four girls an idea: Why not have menstrual products available — for free — in schools across New Mexico?
Spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to abortion access in summer 2022, the girls developed a proposal for a mock state government program and then drafted a bill. After reaching out to about 20 state lawmakers, they found two — Reps. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, and Kristina Ortez, D-Taos — willing to sponsor the legislation.
If their House Bill 134 is approved by both chambers and signed into law, it will require public secondary schools to provide free menstrual products in all girls’ and gender-neutral restrooms and in at least one boys’ restroom. Public elementary schools will be required to provide such products in at least one girls’, gender-neutral and boys’ restrooms.
“We all really believe that menstrual equity is a foundation in the education of reproductive justice, that in order to advocate for reproductive rights to be built back up we have to build a movement that begins with menstrual health and biology and basic respect and dignity,” Ali said. “For us, that meant a movement by the youth, for the youth.”
The teens said the bill would provide three key things: access, education and dignity.
Free access to menstrual products at school would help pull some students out of what is known as “period poverty,” or inadequate access to pads and tampons due to lack of funds, Ali said. Nationwide, about 23% of girls struggle to afford period products, according to a 2021 study, with higher rates among low-income minority students.
Ali said lack of access can be devastating to students, rendering them unable to focus at school or even attend classes.
“What we’re talking about is an issue that sort of shows you how poverty impacts education,” she said.
Having menstrual products available in school restrooms also serves an important educational purpose, Macías said: It shows young people periods are a normal bodily function.
In many communities of color — including her own Mexican American family — periods and period products are rarely discussed, she added.
Liem said the bill and the conversations it has inspired create “period dignity” for public school students, ensuring other young people don’t feel the same discomfort she did unwrapping a pad or tampon in the school bathroom.
So far, legislators have responded favorably to HB 134. It received unanimous approval from the House Education Committee. A coalition of nearly 20 organizations, including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and the New Mexico League of Women Voters, have voiced support for the bill.
Its next stop is the powerful House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which has not yet voted on the measure. The price tag could be an obstacle.
HB 134 now calls for a $3 million appropriation to the Public Education Department to install and stock menstrual product dispensers in school bathrooms. A fiscal impact report, however, estimates the actual initial cost at less than $1 million, with a one-time expense of about $570,000 for dispensers and recurring spending of over $400,000 for period products.
Trujillo said lawmakers are planning to fund the bill consistent with the fiscal impact report, making a $1 million appropriation.
The Albuquerque Academy students say that’s not realistic in New Mexico, where data shows about 1 in 4 children live in poverty. Some students are likely to stock up on the free menstrual products for use on the weekends or for family members, rather than using them exclusively for emergencies at school, they said.
“We know that $3 million is the bare minimum that can cover the implementation of what we’re asking for,” Fisher told the House Appropriations and Finance Committee during a budget hearing Friday.
Trujillo said the bill’s sponsors are hoping to increase its funding to at least $2.5 million.
The students will continue their fight for HB 134, Macías said, pushing for its passage and funding this session and rallying other students to share their stories with legislators.
The effort already has had positive effects, they noted.
“The ability of young menstruators to see that state representatives are talking about their bodies and talking about accessibility in a crucial part of these bathrooms is really important,” Liem said. “It shows them that this isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Although their involvement in HB 134 has offered hands-on lessons in lawmaking, helping draft the bill and providing public comment at legislative hearings has required the teens to miss some school.
It’s worth it, they agreed.
“We’re missing class so other students don’t have to,” Fisher said.