MINNETONKA, Minn. (WCCO) -- On a recent afternoon, 15-year-old Elif Ozturk took a trip after class at Hopkins High School to the Minnesota State Capitol.
She wasn't there for a tour. She was there to testify.
"My number one priority should be to learn, not find a pad," she told a Senate committee. "I can no longer be complacent in this injustice."
Ozturk is pushing the Minnesota Legislature to pass a bill that would make period products free for young women in schools across the state. At least six states and Washington, D.C., approved similar policies.
The high school sophomore says she started advocating for change in state law after witnessing classmates struggle to find or afford products, looking towards each other for help. In some cases, she would see girls skip school.
"I think this is an injustice because for lack of a better word – you're forcing a girl to be bleeding in class. She can't control it in the same way we can't control going to the restroom and you have toilet paper," Ozturk said in an interview "So I think this is a just a basic necessity and it's not a luxury."
Ozturk sought assistance from the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, which first learned of the issue in 2017 when a school it works with approached executive director Beth Gendler asking if the organization could help supply period products, after the school administrator spent her entire discretionary budget on tampons—and they were all gone.
"Before that, for me anyway, it was an issue you heard about in other countries and I'm actually embarrassed that it took us 125 years [as an organization] to recognize that it's a problem right here in Minnesota," Gendler said.
NCJW secured a large donation from Seventh Generation, which sells period products, and has since distributed 200,000 to schools and organizations across the state, including at Hopkins, where there are plastic bins with products available in school bathrooms. That supply is running low.
"What we have found is basically that it's working," Gendler said. "Kids are using the supplies that they need. They're leaving the rest."
The estimated cost for supplying period products free of charge in Minnesota schools is just under $2 million, said Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, the bill's author in the House. State spending on pre-K to 12th grade education in total is more than $24 billion.
Previous legislation has been introduced but hasn't advanced, but Ozturk and Gendler feel optimistic about the bill's chances this year. It's been heard in legislative committees in both chambers and momentum is stronger than it's been before, Gendler said.
She credits Ozturk for moving the needle.
"I think we're poised for success, but honestly it was really Elif's involvement and her ability to mobilize youth support that just made this happen," she said. "There's nothing political about periods. It's just common sense. It's inexpensive and it's a way to right a wrong."
For Elif, the free products she and other Hopkins students have access to through her pilot project is the vision she has for young women across the state. She hopes by next school year, that dream will be a reality.
"We're not asking for a lot, just to provide a basic necessity for our girls to show that we care about them," she said.
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