Congresswoman Grace Meng introduced a nationwide bill to provide free menstrual products after hearing from women who can't afford them

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When Congresswoman Grace Meng was growing up, she didn’t give a second thought to having easy access to menstrual products. But as a legislator representing Queens, in New York City, she learned there are plenty of women in her own district who can’t afford pads and tampons.

“It isn’t just girls in underdeveloped countries who have to skip school for a week out of every month because they couldn’t afford these kinds of products,” Meng, a member of the House of Representatives, tells PEOPLE. “These stories are in our country, a developed country, where there shouldn’t be these kinds of things taking place.”

Meng hopes to change that with the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2017 (H.R. 972), introduced Feb. 13, which would provide greater access to free or reduced-cost menstrual products for women nationwide.

“This is a real issue that prevents more than half the population in some parts of the world and our country from getting an education, and causes shame just for being born a woman. I think it’s time that we educate ourselves and make sure we’re doing our part,” she says.

Meng, who is in her third term in Congress, worked on several bills in New York City and state to provide free menstrual products to schools, jails and homeless shelters, along with eliminating the sales tax on these products.

“We’ve heard stories about girls in New York City who are too embarrassed or couldn’t afford these products. Some of them have used a rag; some would just skip school for a few days. And that’s just heartbreaking for me,” she says. “Whether it’s young girls we heard about in our own city, to hearing stories about women in homeless shelters or prisons where they can’t afford their own products, and it really compelled me to work on this issue. I felt like there wasn’t enough attention drawn on it nationwide, and I just wanted to do my part.”

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One way she hopes to reduce costs on menstrual products is through the Flexible Spending Account, which allows people to get basic healthcare products tax-free. But while many unisex products are available through the program, tampons and pads aren’t included, which Meng chalks up to the social stigma around periods.

“I think the issue makes people — both men and women — a little uncomfortable,” she says. “I had to testify about this issue in our Congressional Ways and Means Commission, in front of a bunch of men, and I could tell that people felt uncomfortable. We’ve grown up in a society where it’s taboo.”

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Meng understands that the bill may not pass — her goal is simply to make people aware of the issue.

“I just want people to start realizing that this is a problem, and to start having these conversations,” she says. “We talk about really basic things, like the Flexible Spending Account, which covers bandages, and crutches, and fake teeth. And I’m not knocking those, but menstrual hygiene products are definitely as much of a necessity as those products. It’s just about changing the standard, and viewing the world a little more equitably.”