Ef­fect­ing change in gov­ern­ment

Gir­lGov pushes civic in­volve­ment for high school girls in re­gion

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By El­iz­abeth Behrman

Samidha Sane, 19, was vol­un­teer­ing at a soup kitchen a few years ago when she spoke to a woman who told her she had to use paper bags when she didn’t have a men­strual pad or tam­pon.

And when Ms. Sane met with a group of fel­low high school girls last year to dis­cuss a com­mu­nity civics project, she said they all had sim­i­lar sto­ries to share: about home­less women, class­mates who don’t have a lot of money or girls who just for­got to pack ex­tra fem­i­nine prod­ucts be­fore leav­ing the house for the day.

The seem­ingly “taboo” sub­ject of men­stru­a­tion is prevent­ing women and girls from ac­quir­ing fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts, the group con­cluded, ei­ther be­cause they don’t have the money to pay for them or feel un­com­fort­able ask­ing for them.

“A lot of peo­ple were just as sur­prised as I was that this is ac­tu­ally a real is­sue, and that just shows that this is an is­sue we don’t talk about enough and we re­ally should,” said Ms. Sane, who grad­u­ated from North Al­legheny High School and now is a fresh­man at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

The group of more than two dozen teenage girls de­cided to tackle the prob­lem as part of their “Men­strual Mis­sion” project through Gir­lGov, a pro­gram of the Women and Girls Foun­da­tion, a Pitts­burgh-based ad­vo­cacy non­profit cov­er­ing south­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia.

They spent last school year re­search­ing “pe­riod poverty,” and polling their school nurses and tak­ing the is­sue be­fore the school boards where they lived. They met with Al­legheny County Ex­ec­u­tive Rich Fitzger­ald and lob­bied for free men­strual prod­uct dis­pensers in pub­lic bath­rooms in county build­ings, a pro­posal he sup­ported and pushed for­ward. The last of 26 fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­uct dis­pensers will be in­stalled within the next few months, county spokes­woman Amie Downs said.

“On the whole, I’m very proud of our en­tire group of young women,” Ms. Sane said. “That’s why we need more women in gov­ern­ment.”

En­cour­ag­ing more young women to get in­volved in gov­ern­ment and pol­i­cy­mak­ing is one of the cen­tral mis­sions of Gir­lGov, pro­gram lead­ers said. The pro­gram, which drew more than 200 ap­pli­cants this year, aims to teach teenage girls about civics, women’s his­tory and so­cial jus­tice.

It be­gan in 2005 as a pro­gram to teach young women about grant writ­ing, but ex­panded to in­clude an ad­vo­cacy and en­gage­ment com­po­nent after the girls launched a “Girl­cott” against re­tailer Aber­crom­bie & Fitch over T-shirts that they be­lieved were de­mean­ing to women. The pro­gram’s mis­sion has ex­panded even fur­ther over the years and now in­cludes trips to Har­ris­burg to shadow state leg­is­la­tors and learn from the pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Penn­syl­va­nia gov­ern­ment.

“This gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents re­ally wants to be a part of ef­fect­ing change,” said Tara Sim­mons, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Women and Girls Foun­da­tion. “It’s very much a pro­gram that is girl-led — each com­mit­tee has girl lead­ers, the girls are iden­ti­fy­ing the is­sues, we’re not pre­scrib­ing the is­sues to them. The girls are do­ing the re­search, the girls are look­ing at cur­rent leg­is­la­tion.”

About 150 girls were ac­cepted into the pro­gram this year. They come from 55 dif­fer­ent high schools across seven coun­ties, Ms. Sim­mons said. They split into four com­mit­tees to tackle var­i­ous is­sues through­out the school year. They be­gin with a re­treat in Septem­ber and con­clude the year with the trip to Har­ris­burg in May or June. They meet on the North Side twice a month to work on their projects to­gether.

This year, the teens are work­ing on projects re­lated to sin­gle-use plas­tics, Ti­tle IX, pro­tec­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity and the Eth­nic In­tim­i­da­tion Act, and shin­ing light on po­lice of­fi­cer per­son­nel files, some­thing they wanted to pur­sue after the fa­tal shoot­ing of 17-yearold Ant­won Rose by an East Pitts­burgh po­lice of­fi­cer last June.

In the past, they have tack­led is­sues like diesel emis­sions from school buses and Sarah’s Bill, named for a Gir­lGov par­tic­i­pant who pushed for re­strain­ing or­der pro­tec­tions for vic­tims of stalk­ing and harass­ment.

“It changed ev­ery­thing for me,” said Re­bekeh Chikuni, a 16-year-old ju­nior at Up­per

En­cour­ag­ing more young women to get in­volved in gov­ern­ment and pol­i­cy­mak­ing is one of the cen­tral mis­sions of Gir­lGov.

St. Clair High School.

She pre­vi­ously wanted to be­come a speech ther­a­pist, but since par­tic­i­pat­ing in Gir­lGov, she hopes to at­tend Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and study po­lit­i­cal sci­ence or in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. She’s par­tic­i­pat­ing for her sec­ond year this year, and was a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee that worked on the “Men­strual Mis­sion” and one of the girls who met with the county ex­ec­u­tive to present the pro­posal for prod­uct dis­pensers.

The girls spent months re­search­ing the is­sues sur­round­ing ac­cess to fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts, both in­ter­na­tion­ally and at home. They re­viewed poli­cies from New York, where a new pol­icy re­quires schools to make free pads and tam­pons avail­able to stu­dents. Gir­lGov mem­bers co­or­di­nated with Sis­terFriend, a lo­cal non­profit that puts to­gether kits of fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts for Pitts­burgh area home­less and women shel­ters. Last year, the group be­gan a part­ner­ship with Pitts­burgh Pub­lic Schools to of­fer them to stu­dents.

Mr. Fitzger­ald said the is­sue wasn’t on his radar un­til the mem­bers of Gir­lGov pre­sented their pro­posal to him sev­eral months ago. He was im­pressed with how pre­pared they were and how much re­search they had done on the topic.

Ms. Sane and Ms. Chikuni said he was im­me­di­ately open to the idea and reached out to the Health Depart­ment to make it hap­pen.

The dis­pensers cost the county about $4,300 and an ad­di­tional $2,300 for the prod­ucts to stock them, Ms. Downs said. They are be­ing in­stalled in bath­rooms in the county’s pub­lic build­ings, in­clud­ing in the court­house and the county parks.

“They made a com­pelling case and you can tell they were se­ri­ous. They were very en­thu­si­as­tic about it,” Mr. Fitzger­ald said. “You could tell they be­lieved in it. It was some­thing from their heart.”

At Gir­lGov’s meet­ing last week, the in­stal­la­tion of the dis­pensers was hailed as a “huge vic­tory” for Gir­lGov mem­bers, and ev­i­dence of what they can ac­com­plish with hard work.

“If you are not clean, you don’t feel hu­man. How are you go­ing to go out there and get a job? How are you go­ing to go out there and get your­self to­gether if you can’t ad­dress your ba­sic needs?” Ms. Chikuni said. “For me, this is for my com­mu­nity. I’m so proud to call this place my home.”

Alexan­dra Wim­ley/Post-Gazette

From left, Nina Ruf­folo of McCand­less, Alaina Ny­paver of the South Hills, Is­abella Mi­hok of Peters and Abi­gail Du­c­los of Mt. Le­banon speak about women in Con­gress dur­ing a Gir­lGov meet­ing Thurs­day at Nova Place.

Alexan­dra Wim­ley/Post-Gazette

From left, Eshani Chauk of Sewick­ley, Skye Bon­dra of Ex­port and Alyza Fos­ter of Wilkins work on a project dur­ing Thurs­day's Gir­lGov meet­ing at Nova Place.

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