MSU students push for better access to menstrual products on campus

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Kaitlyn Kelley

A dispenser located in the first-floor bathroom of the MSU Main Library.

Access to menstrual products and the stigma surrounding menstrual cycles are prevalent issues around the world, including on MSU’s campus. Student groups are aiming to improve this by changing the way menstrual cycles are talked about and by pushing for products to become more easily accessible in buildings across campus.  

PERIOD MSU, Spartan Women’s Health Alliance and other groups on campus have already taken steps to provide products to locations on campus and to help students navigate where they can find them in an instance of an emergency.

PERIOD is a “menstrual movement” that has over 150 chapters across the nation with the goal of providing menstrual products to those in need. This fall, Nama Naseem created a chapter of PERIOD at MSU.

The group has already helped provide products to those in need by creating “period packs,” which are paper bags filled with nine tampons and six pads meant to cover one person’s period.

Naseem said these packs are delivered to places like homeless shelters, women’s shelters, women’s prisons and other locations in need of products.

The group has also started donation drives across campus and has taken steps to inform students of locations on campus that offer free products.

Kaitlyn Kelley

A sign listing the locations in which students can get free menstrual products, placed in the first-floor bathroom of the MSU Main Library.

Naseem said there are three pillars to PERIOD—service, education and advocacy.

Service is what the MSU chapter is currently more focused on, Naseem said. The service pillar involves collecting menstrual products and providing them to people who are in need of them.

The education pillar urges to change the way people talk about periods and to eliminate “the taboo” and stigma surrounding them.

That’s sort of talking to the students on what a healthy period looks like and what a period even is because there are so many misconceptions surrounding it,” Naseem said.

Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia and expert in feminist politics and gender and sexuality, said the inability to access and afford menstrual products are widespread concerns around the world.

“There will always be some people who will not be able to pay for them, regardless of cost,” Rosewarne said. “A solution needs to be found.”

Rosewarne said the stigma surrounding menstrual cycles is also a worldwide issue and that women have been taught that periods are “dirty and smelly.”

She said this stigma can lead to embarrassment in actively seeking out products.

The advocacy pillar of PERIOD has the goal of raising awareness and creating change through events, campaigns and media relationships.

Naseem said a big part of advocacy for the group is trying to repeal the tampon tax, or taxing menstrual hygiene products including tampons and pads. Only nine states—Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and Florida—have eliminated the tampon tax.

Naseem said it shouldn’t be the group’s responsibility to provide menstrual products in the dispensers in bathrooms across MSU’s campus.

She said the MSU administration is aware that access to products around campus is an issue.

“We shouldn’t be the ones buying it,” Naseem said. “Our service isn’t supposed to go towards the school. It should just be convincing the school that this is worth your money.”

She said, if the PERIOD program is successful for one year, it will get added to MSU’s budget. That way, the group can move forward with providing products to those in need.

“We’re really trying to promote that and advocate for it because it’s important but very few people realize that it’s going on,” she said. “Not many people know that if you go to Wells, the dispensers there are free… just trying to get the word out.”

Naseem said, moving forward, the group hopes to get the word out about the services they offer.

“It’s just some hidden mission that goes on and there are actually a lot of groups trying to collect items for those in need but they don’t get organized,” she said. “I guess Period is a little different because you’re not just focused on service, they’re focused on even bigger issues. They’re trying to get products everywhere.”

Campus distribution efforts

According to Women’s Advisory Committee for Support Staff, the Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, and the MSU Residential and Hospitality Services are collaborating in a pilot program to offer free emergency menstrual products across campus.

The MSU Main Library, the International Center, the Student Services Building, the Biomedical Physical Sciences Building, the Student Parent Resource Center and every neighborhood engagement on campus all offer free products to those who ask for them, no questions asked.

There are neighborhood engagement centers at McDonel Hall in room W9, at Brody Hall in room 148, at Holden Hall in room G7, at Hubbard Hall in room 127 and at Olin Health Center in room 210.

People can also donate to this program at room 307 of the Student Services Building and the sales desk of the MSU Surplus Store, the Women’s Advisory Committee for Support Staff website said.

“Should the pilot prove to be successful, broad-based marketing and additional locations will be added to this site,” the website said.

If enough students utilize the products at the front desk, MSU will put funds toward the program.

Spartan Women’s Health Alliance is a student group on campus that was also founded this fall by Kayla Fagan, who is now president of the group. The group’s goal is to get free menstrual products in all bathrooms on MSU’s campus.

The group is currently donating products to the front desk locations that are offering free products to students.

The group also does volunteer work involving women’s health and wellness, such as menstrual cycle drives on campus, Fagan said.

She said she thinks it’s possible for the university to find a way to provide free products to students.

“It’s such a simple solution and they just won’t do it,” Fagan said.

Fagan said the group—as well as PERIOD MSU—proposed to put Aunt Flow products into some of the bathrooms on campus, but MSU’s Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) said the products weren’t sustainable and turned the idea down.

The Aunt Flow products are “100 percent natural cotton, biodegradable tampons and pads,” according to their website.

Fagan said the products are eco-friendly and the group wanted to install the free products for students to use.

She said people don’t use the current dispensers because they’re old and require money.

“No one really wants to use them. No one really carries change around,” Fagan said. “I don’t think they’re the best quality products either. It’s just a really uncomfortable situation when you don’t have a pad or a tampon and you don’t want to pay for it at the dispenser, or it’s not working.”

Brandon Baswell, campus services manager within IPF, said there is a specific brand and a specific style of product that must go into the dual vendor dispensers.

He also said products should be in dispensers to ensure there is no waste and to keep the products clean and dry, which was a concern IPF had with the Aunt Flow products.

“The dispensing of the Aunt Flow product is pretty much all out in the open,” Baswell said. “By keeping it in a dispenser, you keep the product protected and you keep a little bit of a better control over the use…plus, our dispensers are mounted to the walls. The Aunt Flow stuff was not as practical.”

Baswell said IPF is working with student groups to find what the best option for distributing products on campus is.

“IPF is working with the student groups that have expressed an interest in improving access,” he said. “We’ve donated product to it (the front desks on campus) and we’re definitely up to find the best option.”

There are free products in the dispensers in Wells Hall as of this fall. Baswell said use of the products has slightly increased since the products have been free in the building.

If MSU finds that enough students are using the free products in Wells Hall, they will consider putting free products in more buildings across campus, Baswell said.

Since there is a lot of traffic through Wells Hall, Baswell said it will be a good predictor of how many students are using the products and how much product is needed.

IPF will monitor the activity of the free dispensers over the course of the 2018-19 academic year.

“The challenge is we don’t know what the financial impact is,” he said. “We’re trying to determine what is the real demand? What will we go through if we start putting more product out?”

Campus dispensers – a last resort?

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, out of 640 women’s bathrooms in buildings across campus, 296 of them have dispensers for menstrual products in them.

In the documents, several of the dispensers have notes like “does not work” and “very old.”

Baswell said the dispensers on campus are stocked weekly by custodial services.

He said the bathrooms near classrooms tend to have more usage than in other parts of buildings, such as above the first floor.

“When we installed the feminine hygiene dispensers on campus years ago, a focus was to really just have them in first floor restrooms and, since then, it’s expanded not exclusively to the first floor, but mostly,” Baswell said.

Baswell said IPF will replace or fix the dispensers if they break due to old age or vandalism. He said the dispensers cost around $300.

He said, overall, there isn’t a lot of use of the dispensers, whether they’re old or new.

“It’s always been sort of thought of as an emergency issue,” Baswell said. “The feedback I’ve gotten is that people have their brand and their preference and—unless they’re caught off guard—they prefer to have their own product, their own brand, with them.”

Women’s health in the classroom

Lynnette King, a professor at MSU who has taught cultural, medical and feminist anthropology for over 20 years, said students in her women and health class were “very surprised” to learn how little access some women have to feminine products and how some have to “improvise in sometimes unhygienic ways to get those products.”

King said she asked her class about the tampon and pad dispensers located in bathrooms around MSU’s campus. She said most students who responded in her class said they can’t rely on the dispensers because they aren’t frequently filled with products or because the products look too old to use.

“I thought they would be shy to talk about it and that only women would talk about it. But everybody wanted to talk about it,” she said. “Really, what they were doing was rolling their eyes about the machines, that they’re not reliable, that they never go to them, that they really have to be prepared in advance and have to use the buddy system… they have to reach out to each other and support each other.”

In King’s class—Anthropology 270, women and health—students learn about different issues surrounding women’s health and gender disparities in health issues, including access to feminine hygiene products and access to health care. This class normally consists of between 120 or 220 students, most of them women.

She said when she taught her class about menstrual cycles and access to products, she asked students to find a newspaper article about using menstrual products in women’s prisons.

“You would think everyone’s going to pull the same article, but there are so many articles about the problems of having access to menstrual products in prison that very few of them had the same article,” she said. “There are also so many about the problems of giving birth while someone is incarcerated.”

King said, internationally, access to menstrual products is difficult and can have an affect on school and other interactions.

“It’s an issue. It’s an issue of poverty. It’s an issue of places where you can’t afford those products or there aren’t enough of them available, or it’s also an issue where you don’t have a support network. You get them from somebody,” King said. “If there’s a stigma, then you’re not going to feel like you have a support network to get those products from. I always have these products in my desk, but no one’s ever asked me for them.”

King said her class also covers how socioeconomic status affects how easy or difficult it is to get access to menstrual products and how other countries face issues related to products.

“Especially now we have these designer products, so the cost of the product has gone up when it’s a pretty basic product,” she said. “Whenever you start designing products that way and marketing them that way, then the price of them goes up. So, there’s little access to the cheap products.”

Although some things have changed over time, there are still stereotypes, misconceptions and stigma surrounding women’s health issues in society today, King said.

She said feminist anthropology has gone through several stages.

“First, we wanted to find women in the anthropological records because most work was written by men and overlooked of some of the roles and things women were doing,” King said. “Then, we wanted to challenge ideas of a male-organized society.”

She said feminist anthropology today is concerned with addressing inequality.

There’s also the broader issue of “medicalizing” or “pharmecuticalizing” women’s health issues, King said.

“We have developed some ideas of things that are normal to us and happen in daily life, like menstruating is now premenstrual syndrome or how menopause is medicalized and seen as a pathology or something that needs pharmaceutical intervention,” she said. “So, what we’re looking at is how something natural becomes pharmaceuticalized or medicalized.”

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