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Why Higher-Ed Institutions Should Address Period Poverty

Menstrual equity is a matter of human dignity, public health, and gender discrimination.

Written By: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge

Period poverty is an issue of equity in higher education. Limited or no access to menstrual products can leave students vulnerable to health complications such as emotional stress, infections, and serious illnesses. Period poverty impacts a lot of students across the U.S; as many as 1 in 10 college students struggle with it, according to a 2021 study by BMC Women’s Health. Unfortunately, underserved groups, low-income students, and first-generation students have the highest rates of period poverty. Students should not have to miss school due to the risk of bleeding through clothes and getting shamed, let alone be at risk for some types of illnesses and/or be forced to pick between simple hygiene or food just because they get their period. As such, higher-ed institutions should provide students with free menstrual products.

Access to menstrual products is not a given. Menstrual products can be costly and difficult to find for free. For example, pantyliners may cost people up to $443.33 in their lifetime, while tampons may total up to $1,773.33. Ruined underwear alone can cost people up to $2,280 in their lifetime. It can be difficult for students to cover these expenses while paying thousands of dollars for tuition and other related expenses. Students without access to period products may miss valuable classes they paid for, which can harm their educational performance and translate to a financial loss overtime. Additionally, this cost falls almost exclusively on women, adding additional expenses on top of the gender wage gap. Those who come from underrepresented and underserved communities should not be forced to deal with additional expenses that can harm their school and career development.

Period poverty can harm students in many ways. Some students may try to use toilet paper and risk bleeding through their clothes, which can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and social stigma. Some students may miss class and valuable teaching time. Even more concerning is the fact that inadequate access to menstrual products can be dangerous. Menstruating people without access risk several medical issues, like infections that can lead to cervical cancer and infertility. Further, students who leave tampons in too long due to lack of access to menstrual products may be at risk of toxic shock syndrome, which is deadly.

It is important to recognize that period poverty is not exclusively a women's issue. Nonbinary students and transgender men may also get their periods. They should have access to period products too, without having to face possible prejudice when trying to get access to them. Therefore, it is important to provide menstrual products in a circumspect yet accessible way.

This is a matter of human dignity, public health, and gender discrimination. Periods are as unavoidable as any other bathroom needs. Toilet paper and hand-soap is free and provided by all kinds of institutions, including schools. Imagine how unfair it would be to remove toilet paper from school bathrooms. This is equally unfair. Additionally, condoms are provided at many institutions, yet menstrual products are not. People can abstain from sex and contraception can be found for free or cheap elsewhere - yet periods are unavoidable and menstrual products often cannot be found for free (some, not all, homeless shelters may offer them, but it should not be assumed that people live near them or know about them). So it does not make sense to exclude free menstrual products from students. Period poverty should be recognized as an equity in higher education issue. Therefore, colleges and universities should take steps to provide free menstrual products in their public restrooms.

For more information, see:

Changing the Cycle: Period Poverty as a Public Health Crisis, University of Michigan School of Public Health

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