As we saw in a recent post that told the story of Sloan, a fictional university student grappling with period poverty, reusable products have an essential role to play in achieving universal, sustainable menstrual equity. Excitingly, this is playing out in real time across campuses in Canada and the US as student governments and administrators seek to implement inclusive, long-term solutions. The Aisle team has created a new free resource for students, student government leaders and administrators looking to learn about what’s possible on their campuses.
Why Post-Secondary Institutions (PSIs)?
PSIs are ideal environments to deploy menstrual equity solutions. First, the need is huge. Roughly 50% of students menstruate on a regular basis, many live on campus with access to multiple existing communications frameworks, and upwards of a quarter of them experience period poverty. Students–since they are not able to work full-time–are among those disproportionately affected by lack of access to menstrual products. So the problem and the solution can thus be addressed in the same place, at the same time. Bonus: most youth are hyper-aware of environmental issues and climate change, and don’t need to be convinced that sustainable solutions are desirable!
Why disposables in bathrooms is not an effective solution to period poverty
The original rationale for the provision of menstrual products (paid or otherwise) in public bathrooms was to meet the last-minute or ‘surprise’ needs of people who would otherwise be able to afford to purchase them. In other words, it was never intended as a solution for people experiencing true period poverty - those who actually need it the most.
We need to think ‘beyond bathrooms’ and start from the question of how best to meet the needs of people who do not have the ability to purchase products for themselves. Sure–assuming that they are able to locate a product in a building that’s open that stocks products and affirms their gender–their problem is ‘solved’ for a few hours, but we need to ask: what happens after that?
Until very recently, the assumption has been that the person in question will go to the closest store and buy more products. In the case of upwards of 25% of students, this is not going to happen, leaving them in a precarious position.
The good news: post-secondary institutions are providing free reusables - right now
Having personally witnessed the steps being taken by multiple colleges and universities across Turtle Island, we are excited to report that better solutions are happening every day, in the form of reusable products–cloth pads, menstrual cups and discs, and period underwear–being distributed, for free, directly to students.
There are notable differences in this approach, as opposed to bathroom product provision:
- They’re not in bathrooms! Handing out products in central campus locations is closer to what we call a ‘user-centered’ approach: in other words, bringing products to people who need them, rather than making people in need find them in specific places that may be inaccessible.
- It’s fun! These types of events–where free reusable pads, cups and period underwear are handed out to students–are fun! We had a period trivia wheel where folks could test their menstrual savvy, and enjoyed dozens of positive conversations about people’s diverse experiences of menstruation. This type of visible, festive public interaction increases education and smashes shame to boot.
- People get more products where and when they need them. Anyone who menstruates can tell you that periods are unpredictable, and can show up anywhere, at any time. When you have a supply of reusable products that belong to you, you are more likely to have them when you need them. This can look like having a stash of period underwear at home, or keeping a spare pad or cup in bags or lockers. This way, you’re less likely to be unprepared or need to go hunting for products.
- Less demand for bathroom disposables. It’s worth asking whose job it is to make sure that bathrooms are stocked with disposable supplies, and on the flip side, who empties the receptacles and hauls away the waste. Facilities staff in institutions are already hard-working. Reducing demand for bathroom disposables through the provision of reusables lightens their workload and makes more disposable supplies available for folks who need them.
- It costs less. Since they can be used again and again, reusable products cost less per use than disposable products.
- Better product choice leads to better mental health. Agency is a vital component of effectively addressing period poverty. When someone is only provided with one type of product (typically, one type of disposable pad or tampon), the products may not in fact work for everyone’s needs or preference. Imagine instead being able to choose the size of cup or pad, or even your preferred style of period underwear. Having the products that work best for your body and flow, plus knowing that you’re prepared, makes for reduced anxiety and better overall confidence.