Student Activists Are Breaking the Silence on Period Poverty

Student activists in the “Free The Period” coalition have worked to introduce California Assembly Bill 367, the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021.

Toxic shock syndrome, bloody pants and missed school are just a few of the symptoms of period poverty—the lack of access to menstrual healthcare. Ask any person who menstruates and they can tell you what this looks like: the panic felt when a period comes unexpectedly in public, or the discomfort of having to use a wad of toilet paper as a makeshift pad. 

I once had the mortifying experience of my toilet paper “pad” unraveling and dropping out of my pant leg, dragging on the floor as I walked down my high school hallways unaware. I was overwhelmed with embarrassment at the time—but in retrospect, the entire situation stemmed from the impractical expectation that those who menstruate should be responsible for always carrying a pad or tampon with them. 

Student activists are now pushing back, calling for free menstrual products to be provided in bathrooms, just like toilet paper, urinal cakes and other bathroom necessities. We’re tired of having free condoms shoved at us at schools where there are no free menstrual products. At my high school, the only way to get menstrual products was by begging your friends or going down to the locker rooms, where one sympathetic PE teacher sold them for 25 cents apiece. If you didn’t have coins on you, or were too shy to ask for them, you were out of luck.

Taking Action

Together with four students at my public university, I started an effort to push for free products in our campus bathrooms. We talked to every university administrator we could get a meeting with, and eventually secured a grant to start a pilot program in a limited number of bathrooms. The pilot program was created because administrators wanted us to prove to them what we already knew: that students need menstrual products in campus bathrooms. But even after collecting usage data, administrators offered only partial funding for menstrual product access in campus bathrooms. 

We thought if our administrators weren’t going to meet our needs, we needed to take it to the top—to the California State Legislature. 

(Becker1999 / Creative Commons)

By then, our small campus initiative had morphed into a statewide coalition of students and organizations fighting to secure menstrual product access in their communities. We named our coalition “Free The Period” and held weekly video calls to strategize on how we would lobby legislators, train our peers in political advocacy,  and spread awareness around period poverty. 

This year, we teamed up with nine other organizations to introduce California Assembly Bill 367, The Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2021. Thanks to our collaborative effort, AB 367 could make free menstrual products available in all California public schools grades 6–12, community colleges and California state universities. It has so far received unanimous support in both house floor votes, and we’re hoping that it will be signed into law by the end of the year. 

The Free The Period campaign is proof that even as young people, we have the power to change the laws that govern our everyday lives. Many of our peers say they don’t want to be political, but we realize that the personal is political, down to the blood in our underwear. 

In a survey of 1,010 menstruating teens, 76 percent reported that their school had taught them more about frog anatomy than female anatomy, and 65 percent believed that society taught them to be ashamed of their periods. 

School administrators, lawmakers, parents, educators and community members have the obligation to step up to the plate and ensure that the next generation of menstruators have the menstrual health access they need to feel confident in their bodies. That means implementing comprehensive menstrual health education curricula and free menstrual products in school bathrooms. 

Period Poverty in Schools Is the Tip of the Iceberg

Though menstrual equity policies in the U.S. have so far focused on schools, other groups are also severely impacted by period poverty and need immediate attention. 

One unhoused menstruator we worked with said she had to sleep on concrete with blood leaking out of her pants because shelters didn’t offer menstrual products. In many states, inmates aren’t given enough menstrual products to care for their full cycle. One former inmate in Connecticut shared how a cell of two inmates only received five menstrual products per week to split among themselves. Depriving prisoners access to basic hygiene was used as a tactic to dehumanize them. 

Menstruation is culturally associated with being a woman, making it difficult for some transmasculine and non-binary menstruators to feel that their bodies align with their gender. (This feeling is also known as gender dysphoria). One trans man told us he was scared of his friends finding out he was transgender if they saw him with menstrual products in hand.

To achieve menstrual equity for all, menstrual products and menstrual product disposal bins must be in all bathroom stalls, regardless of gender designation.

Menstrual Health: A Right, Not a Privilege

Free menstrual products in bathrooms is not a radical idea—it’s the bare minimum menstruating people need to participate in public life. Nearly half the human population needs menstrual products, and 86 percent of them say they have gotten their period unexpectedly in public without the supplies they needed on hand, according to a national survey of 1,074 women in the US.

Rep. Grace Meng (center) and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf—both at podium—with advocates of the Menstrual Equity for All Act during its initial introduction in Mar 26, 2019. (Twitter)

Still, we can’t even say the word “period” in public without it being considered rude. From menarche, menstruators are taught to talk about periods only in whispers or in euphemisms like “Aunt Flow” and “that time of the month.” This forced silence around menstruation is what has fueled period poverty, allowing its everyday injustices to persist without ever penetrating the public’s conscience. 

To end period poverty we need to end the societal norms that are the root cause of period poverty. 

Today we are finally starting to talk about periods in public, and already seeing meaningful changes in government because of it. The U.N. established International Menstrual Hygiene Day in recognition of global period poverty, and Scotland and New Zealand became the first countries to put free menstrual products in all public bathrooms last year. The US could follow suit if the Menstrual Equity Act For All Act introduced by Congresswoman Grace Meng in the House of Representatives is passed. 

Until then—until menstrual products are as ubiquitous as toilet paper and talking about periods is normalized—the fight to #FreeThePeriod continues. 

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Audin Leung (they/them) is the co-founder and political director of Free The Period, a student-led coalition fighting to end the lack of access to menstrual products in California schools. They recently graduated from UC Davis, where they were recognized for their service with the Charles Hess and Chancellor's Civic Engagement awards. Their passion to combat macro-level systemic injustices that impact individuals on a pesonal level is driven by their experience with sexual assault in college.