Tampons or Toilet Paper? The Inequity in What’s Free
After realizing that she got her period while on campus, a Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) student was faced with a difficult decision: miss class and go home to get a tampon or risk bleeding through her pants. So, she missed class. Yorgelis Encarnacion remembers that day with frustration. “My period came out of nowhere,” Encarnacion said. “And I lost out on school because I didn’t have what I needed.”
The struggle of women and girls to access menstrual products is fairly common around the world and is known as “period poverty”. A 2017 Always Confidence and Puberty Study, of females 16-24 years old, found that “nearly 1 in 5 American girls have missed school due to lack of period protection.” A 2018 survey conducted by Harris Insights and Analytics of 1,000 aged 13-19 entitled “State of the Period” found the problem is even more widespread with “25% of teen-students having missed class because of lack of access to period products and two-thirds of respondents having felt stress because they didn’t have access to tampons and pads.”
“It would never occur to a man to carry around toilet paper because you know you’re going to have free access to it,” said Lela Belk-Orr, a Tri-C student advocate on the issue. “It just tells me that women are not equal. As women we just shouldn’t have to worry about accessing the products that we need for a normal body function that we have no control over.”
Advocates across the country are calling for legislative changes on the federal and state levels, but one solution hits a little closer to home. If schools and colleges like Tri-C provided free products in bathrooms, students wouldn’t experience period poverty while on campus grounds.
“If I saw free pads and tampons in campus bathrooms, it would make me think a woman is behind that,” said Belk-Orr. “It would show that Tri-C has women in leadership and I think it would make girls more comfortable. It would shine a really positive light on Tri-C that it’s trying to make a positive change for women and girls in the community.”
Magda Gomez, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Tri-C, said the College is working to increase the availability and access to feminine hygiene products “at each of our campus food pantries, including reviewing the best options for signage in our restrooms to inform students where to access the products.”
Several students said they were not aware of the availability of period products in campus food pantries, and some didn’t know about the campus food pantries at all.
“It’s good,” Encarnacion replied after hearing about the resource, but she didn’t seem convinced. “It would be better if they could provide it in the bathrooms because then I wouldn’t have to run across campus when it might get on my pants.”
Another student noted other barriers with the pantry solution: the limited hours of operation, the weight and item limits, and the fact that students face stigma when seeking period products.
“There’s a huge stigma! A lot of people associate having periods with not being clean,” Belk-Orr explained. “Nobody should feel like they’re disgusting or they’re less than because they need hygiene products, but a lot of us do.” Ending period poverty on campus would need to include educational programs about menstruation for all genders.
We need a seminar and something fun to educate girls on their bodily functions that are 100% normal. We also need to educate boys. By the time they leave the seminar they should leave being more informed and understanding of what women go through. “I want women to be seen and heard and understood.”