The DOT Org, and anyone who reads this blog, understands that the inequities in access to menstrual products is an intersectional issue that needs to be addressed for the betterment of menstruators, and non-menstruators alike. Governments from countries such as Scotland, and New Zealand recently announced their plans to offer free menstrual products to people. These announcements drew global attention to period poverty, but there are ways beyond governments that people can care for one another when addressing menstrual equity. Since my freshman year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I have been curious as to if the university could provide these products to the student community, and what ripple effects prioritizing this could have.
Receiving a formal education was not something always offered to cisgender women, who currently represent the majority of people that menstruate, so it’s not surprising that schools and other large organizations aren’t set up for their well-being. I grew up attending public schools, where soap and toilet paper weren’t consistent in bathrooms, and if my family did not openly discuss menstruation and could not afford products, I have no idea where I would have turned to get them. When I found out that my school system would start offering them for free following my graduation, I was thrilled. Even though accessing pads and tampons was never an issue for me, knowing that they were available at school made a lot of sense to me. For a lot of people, school is where they spend the majority of their time from age 5-18+, so having the option to get free products there every month makes a lot of sense, especially because not having access can impede on learning. When I started attending college and making financial choices on my own, it became harder to justify spending so much money on pads and tampons monthly, and I opted to invest in a menstrual cup. In the state of Michigan, the tampon tax was recently repealed, which eliminates taxes on menstrual hygiene products, another step in the right direction towards making menstrual products more accessible and affordable. But what about what universities in Michigan, like U-M could do to alleviate period poverty?
If we’re comparing U-M to Big-10, or Ivy league schools in terms of providing free menstrual products, the University of Michigan is lagging behind. Ohio State and Michigan State, U-M’s biggest rivals, already piloted programs to provide free menstrual products. A common thread in what started/pushed these programs at other universities: student power. It’s not impossible for a university to reprioritize its funding, but it often takes a lot of pushing from students. How is this university for the “leaders and best” if we are failing to care for the health of people who menstruate?
There is already a lot of great student work happening at U-M to address menstrual inequity. Here at the Dot Org, beyond providing tangible products to the community, we conduct research and provide educational resources to not only reduce the stigma around menstruation, but also improve the amount of information available to people. Besides us at Dot Org, there is a pilot program headed by the university to provide free pads and tampons, Maize and Blue cupboard hands some out, and there is a coalition within CSG working with administration to make the pilot program a stronger, lasting reality. Groups like LEO, GEO, and OneU provide a framework for what strong organizing for collective liberation looks like, which is inspiring to see as an undergraduate, and makes me wonder what would happen if existing activist groups brought menstrual health into their activism.
At U-M and any other organization seeking to address menstrual equity, it is important to address period poverty as it relates to other social issues beyond sexism, such as racism, transphobia, ableism, and ecological destruction. Social justice around identity cannot be addressed in isolation. The university supplying products is a start but is meaningless without input from their target population. Buying healthy, sustainably, and ethically produced products is necessary, and prioritizing buying from black-owned and queer-owned is even more necessary when considering the interlocking systems of oppression that lead to period inequity. I recognize I sound really cynical, which I am a little bit, but mostly I just want the best and want to draw attention to what I see as a really important part of menstrual health. Lately, amidst the pandemic, the mutual aid groups that have grown in prominence in my home and in Ann Arbor have inspired me to look at menstrual inequity through a new lens. Maybe addressing the issue on campus isn’t up to the administration, rather it is in the hands of students to lift up each other, not through a hierarchical lens of charity, but through a shared lens of identifying the needs of one another and providing for each other. I’m optimistic that within my lifetime, the stigma around this topic will be reduced, and the health of entire communities can be improved.
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