Students demand more accessible menstrual products

By DIVA PAREKH | March 28, 2019

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM Lee and Chen are working to bring free menstrual health products to Homewood campus.

While menstruation is a normal and regular bodily process, restrooms on the Homewood Campus do not provide menstrual products — a necessity for around half the population. To address this, juniors Chanel Lee and Bridget Chen founded the student group Wings to bring free and accessible menstrual products to campus.

Lee explained why they felt it was important to fight for better access to menstrual products.

“It’s immoral to tax a normal human bodily function. Menstrual products are not easily available and affordable to everyone. That is a fact,“ Lee said. “They are expensive, especially when buying on a routine basis.”

On Nov. 8, 2016, Student Government Association (SGA) members passed a bill to have free menstrual health products available in women’s restrooms.

Junior Class President Dean Chien explained that it took the SGA Senate a month to figure out how to implement the bill. They created a small committee of students who would sign up on a rotating schedule to restock bathrooms in Brody, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, the Fresh Food Cafe and the Recreation Center.

“At the end of the day, four or five people having to restock the bathrooms, which was essentially a job that facilities and management would be better able to handle, was not sustainable,” Chien said. “It fizzled out eventually, because even though we had a plan in place, we didn’t have the capacity to sustainably keep this going.”

Then-Freshman Class Senator Rushabh Doshi introduced the 2016 bill. The following academic year, the accessible menstrual health initiative lost its traction when Doshi became SGA executive secretary and had to fulfill new responsibilities, Chien explained. He added that because the initiative was time-consuming and unsustainable, other SGA members did not take over from Doshi, and the initiative died out.

Over a year later, on March 7, 2018, then-sophomores Chanel Lee and Bridget Chen came up with the idea to create a student organization dedicated to making menstrual health products more accessible on campus. By the next morning, they had formed Wings. 

Lee and Chen applied for the IdeaLab Grant, an organization where students can submit entrepreneurial ideas that their peers can vote on. The group with the most votes receives funding to establish their project. Later, during the spring 2018 semester, Wings won the IdeaLab Grant under the eco-smart category. 

The following fall semester, Lee and Chen took their idea to SGA. Then-Sophomore Class Senator Lauren Paulet introduced a bill to provide funding for Wings to start its initiative. 

Paulet explained that SGA had a large stock of menstrual products left over from the 2016 initiative.

“[The menstrual products] were just sitting there, and we didn’t want to let them go to waste. When we got in touch with Wings, we saw the opportunity to partner with a group that had the capacity to stock the restrooms,” she said. “We were looking for a short-term solution to use that stock of products, and we wanted to formulate a long-term solution thereafter.”

She added that one thing she and her fellow SGA members considered during the 2018 bill was the creation of all-gender restrooms on campus. 

“Often, we forget that not all people who menstruate are female-identifying. Before, we had only been placing products in female identifying restrooms,” Paulet said. “We didn’t realize that we were leaving out other people who needed those products.”

In 2016, when all-gender restrooms were rare on campus, only female-identifying SGA members could go in and stock the women’s restrooms with menstrual products. However, with more all-gender restrooms, Paulet noted, SGA members of all genders could contribute.

This solution, however, was only temporary, according to Chien. He added that SGA members did not know how feasible it was for students to tackle menstrual health without the help of the University administration. He emphasized that it was SGA’s job to help bring the issue to the administration’s attention.

“We didn’t know whether an entirely student-run initiative would go on. The purpose of writing the bill was to say, ‘Look, this is an issue on campus and it might not be something that the administration has paid attention to in the past,’” Chien said. “This is SGA’s job; we are supposed to solve problems around campus. If it takes us saying we’re going to run a pilot program, or at least attempt to, hopefully that brings it to the attention of someone who can do this.”

Chen, currently the vice-president of Wings, described the process of bringing the menstrual health initiative to University administrators.

“A lot of the footwork happened this semester in the months of February and March, and we were able to have really important administrative meetings with deans and budget officers present,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of logistical aspects and planning, hoping to convey the message to the administration that this is important and that we want to be as involved as possible.”

She explained that she and current Wings President Chanel Lee also received significant support from faculty members. Chen added that they reached out to Environmental Health and Engineering Professor Erica Schoenberger, who was one of the first people to get the conversation started among faculty members. 

“She reached out to various different people, including Women and Gender Resources Director Jeannine Heynes to get the conversation started,” Chen said. “[Schoenberger] realized that there was a student who was running back home to get a menstrual product and that was profoundly wrong.”

After over a month of planning, the meeting was set for March 6. Participants included Heynes, Dean of Student Life Smita Ruzicka and Custodial Services Manager Jeanine Boyd.

Lee and Chen hoped to start with a two-part initiative. The first half would involve using SGA’s stock of menstrual products and distributing them in crates across bathrooms across campus. The second half would involve asking administrators to buy plastic dispensers provided by Aunt Flow, a company focused on sustainable menstrual health, and attach them to female and all-gender restroom walls across campus. Aunt Flow, Chen explained, has introduced sustainable dispensers at 30-40 other universities. 

Lee added that at the meeting, University officials suggested putting the first half of Wings’ plan on hold and instead focusing more on perfecting the second half, which centered on the plastic dispensers, in order to achieve a more permanent solution to improve menstrual health on campus. Ruzicka, according to Lee, said that she would create a committee that would work on the logistics of rolling out these dispensers.

Lee and Chen added that administrators raised questions about how the dispensers would be restocked and cleaned and who would contribute to the efforts to do so. They explained that Wings, SGA and University officials are currently in the process of combining their resources and research to work toward answering those questions and implementing the dispensers by the fall 2019 semester. 

Meanwhile, Lee and Chen will continue to work toward promoting sustainability in menstrual health on campus, particularly through menstrual cups.

Freshman Annesha Datta, who is one of the Wings sustainability co-directors, helped to plan an event on March 12 during which attendees learned how to use a menstrual cup and received free menstrual cups. Through the workshop, they also aimed to destigmatize periods and promote discourse surrounding menstrual health.

“We wanted to assist with the learning curve and make the adjustment process a little easier for first-time users interested in incorporating more sustainable products into their everyday routine,” Datta said. “We had a great turnout of open-minded menstruators who took into stride all the information we gave them and even more who could not make the event but reached out to us for individual advice... to get them started on their journey to sustainability.”

Chen and Lee emphasized that this was the optimal time for the University to join its peers in working toward free, accessible and sustainable menstrual health. 

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