By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women will get free tampons and sanitary pads in New York City schools, jails and shelters under a first-of-its-kind program whose supporters argue that costly hurdles to feminine hygiene products amount to discrimination.

The program was unanimously approved this week in an array of bills by the New York City Council and awaits the signature of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has said he supports it.

It comes as part of a national debate started by advocates who say many women are unable to afford products that can cost more than $100 a year.

"Menstrual hygiene products are as necessary as toilet paper and should be treated as basic bathroom supplies," said Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, a city council member who championed the measure, in a statement.

The program is the first of its kind, according to Ferreras-Copeland.

Once the program is in place, the city will spend an estimated $2.4 million annually to provide tampons and pads to students at public schools, residents of city shelters and inmates at jails and other correctional facilities.

Some 2 million tampons and 3.5 million pads will be handed out yearly in shelters alone, Ferreras-Copeland said.

"It's groundbreaking," Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who helped lead the drive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "This is truly a policy victory. Hopefully that will be replicated."

Elise Joy, who with her 13-year-old daughter co-founded Girls Helping Girls Period, a non-profit group that donates feminine hygiene products to those in need, said she was thrilled.

"This is just a very simple matter of human dignity," she said.

Five of the 50 U.S. states exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes, and several more are considering similar moves.

In New York state, a bill to end sales tax on tampons and sanitary napkins is awaiting the governor's signature to become law.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit