Having a period comes with a hidden struggle rooted in shame. We discreetly slip a pad or a tampon in our pockets, moving tactfully not to draw attention to the crinkle of the packaging. We pray a friend has a product to spare since there is no guarantee the dispenser will be stocked—or even functional. And some know the keen distress of not being able to afford the essential products. These problems transcend our teenage years: The stigma, and the issue of access, remains constant for decades.
At Georgetown, access to menstrual products has become a topic of conversation. According to a Planning & Facilities Management document obtained at the beginning of the fall semester, 44 bathrooms on campus have menstrual product dispensers. Twelve of them are located in the New Research Building, a part of the medical campus. Notably, there are no dispensers in Yates or any dorm buildings.
In light of this insufficient access, organizations like the Period Empowerment Project (PEP), H*yas For Choice (HFC), the Hoya Hub, and GUSA are attempting to fill in the gaps. Though menstrual product-related activism is not new at Georgetown, the last year has seen an increase in student organizations lobbying administrators with some success, as well as launching their own initiatives to make menstrual supplies more available on campus.
Keerat Singh (SFS ’23) and Jessica Shannon (SFS ’23) lead HFC’s Menstrual Equity Campaign this year. Shannon characterizes inadequate menstrual product resources as a two-pronged issue: lack of access and lack of awareness of where to find products. Activists like Shannon feel there’s a double standard for period products as compared to other hygiene products. “It’s kind of strange that anyone anywhere should have to bring their own period products with them,” she said. “If you think about it, we don’t require everyone to bring toilet paper with them, and it’s an equivalent product. You need it.”
When Autumn Eastman (NHS ’18), co-founder of PEP, the university chapter of the national organization PERIOD, attended Georgetown, she said she never saw free products available in bathrooms. “You just assume that you have to buy products. There’s no other option,” Eastman said.
The absence of menstrual products has its consequences. Without them, students may miss class. People may miss work or face discomfort and disruption of their normal day. Going without products or fashioning your own substitutes can be unsanitary. Importantly, not just women menstruate; some men and nonbinary people menstruate too, and men’s bathrooms rarely, if ever, include dispensers.
Pads and tampons at CVS go for anywhere between $3.59 and $21.49 depending on brand, amount, and size. A box of 36 tampons costs around $7, and menstruators use around 20 tampons per cycle. According to UNICEF, those who menstruate do so for an average of a combined seven years over the course of a lifetime. This means the average menstruator will spend a total of $1,773 on menstrual products in their life.
A 2013 study of over 1,000 women by the Free the Tampon Foundation found that 86 percent of American women between the ages of 18 and 54 lacked proper supplies after unexpectedly getting their periods in public. Additionally, 79 percent of the women surveyed improvised by creating a pad or tampon themselves. Forty-eight percent procured supplies from public dispensers, but only 8 percent said such dispensers always functioned.
HFC’s Menstrual Equity Campaign circulated a petition last spring, which received around 300 signatures, demanding that menstrual products be provided in all on-campus women’s and gender neutral bathrooms, in addition to at least one clearly marked men’s room per building. In the meantime, the petition also asked that the school identify the restrooms that do contain menstrual products so students can find them more easily.
Chloe Kekedjian (COL ’22) headed up HFC’s 2019 Menstrual Equity Campaign. In an email to the Voice, Kekedjian wrote that the campaign was designed with trans students in mind. “Our campaign is purposefully designed to be inclusive to trans students who are often left out of the conversation around menstrual hygiene,” Kekedjian wrote.
As the petition gained student support, Kekedjian met with the student health advisory board and Dr. Vince WinklerPrins, assistant vice president for student health. “They were receptive to the idea of expanding menstrual product availability on campus, but the school disagreed that it was their obligation to provide for all of students’ menstrual product needs,” Kekedjian wrote. “They view the availability of menstrual products as an emergency system, but think students should bear the majority of cost and burden of purchasing menstrual products.”
“The University is on track to double the amount of products provided, compared to the last academic year, in an effort to increase access for our Georgetown community,” wrote a university spokesperson in an email to the Voice.
Raising awareness of where students can access products is not a one-person or a one-club job, Singh and Shannon believe.
“If you’re looking around and seeing what bathrooms have dispensers and making a building graph and stuff like that, that’s all super time-consuming work which, you know, as students we’re busy, too,” Shannon said.
But it’s not just university bureaucracy that hinders menstrual product access. This year’s GUSA executive, composed of President Norman Francis Jr. (COL ’20) and Vice President Aleida Olvera (COL ’20), requested $9,000 from GUSA’s Finance and Appropriations Committee (FinApp) for a Menstrual Product Initiative. This initiative would have stocked menstrual products weekly—five panty liners, five pads, five thin tampons, 10 regular tampons, and 10 super tampons—in 41 women’s, gender neutral, and men’s bathrooms for the academic year, according to GUSA’s FY20 budget proposal. The bathrooms, located in Lauinger Library, the Healey Family Student Center, the Leavey Center, and the ICC, were identified as some of the most frequented on campus.
“This was a top priority for our administration, because… [sic] why not?” Olvera wrote in an email to the Voice. “We wanted to show that by putting tampons and pads in every bathroom on campus, that we are standing with our trans students on campus. Having a period is not just a women’s issue.”
Hayley Grande (COL ’21), then FinApp chair, noted in her ideal budget draft that her preferred allocation for GUSA would be $5,800, mentioning specifically that she would not fund the Menstrual Products Initiative. GUSA requested an overall budget of $26,760 from FinApp, and were allocated $2,957, constituting an 88.95 percent cut. The GUSA Senate approved a budget which cut $229,040 from all organizations, or a little over 17 percent of the total request.
Olvera explained that FinApp believed GUSA’s initiative to be redundant. “The FinApp committee believed that it was already being implemented and pursued by other clubs,” wrote Olvera. “Therefore, they made the decision that it was not necessary to allocate money towards our project.”
Grande defended FinApp’s decision to cut GUSA’s funding due to the presence of alternative programs like the Student Activities Committee (SAC) or the Center for Social Justice’s Advisory Board for Student Organizations (CSJ-ABSO). “The Committee deemed that the $9,000 requested for the Menstrual Products Initiative would best fulfill the mission of the Student Activities Fee if allocated to other entities, such as SAC or CSJ-ABSO, that contribute more directly to student activities and operate under highly constrained budgets,” Grande wrote in an email to the Voice.
In response to difficulties gaining financial and administrative support, students have taken matters into their own hands.
At PEP’s Nov. 23 packaging party in Poulton Hall, around 13 people methodically stamped paper bags with a design that read “period: the menstrual movement.” There were snacks in the corner but they looked largely untouched; everyone was there for business. Lauren Russell (SFS ’22), one of PEP’s co-presidents, was assembling packages while talking to me. She caught a package as it fell off the table without missing a beat.
Russell said that at their monthly packaging parties, PEP assembles anywhere from 200 to 300 packages, designed to last the average length of a menstrual period, for Community of Hope, a local nonprofit serving low-income and homeless families. “We hope to provide [menstrual products] by giving them pads, tampons, panty liners, the things that they really do need because access to menstrual products is not a luxury; it’s a right, of course.”
Eastman and her friend Piper Donaghu (COL ’18) founded PEP in 2017 after Donaghu attended a PERIOD event. When she told Eastman about the difficulty that people experiencing homelessness face during their periods, the two decided to take action.
Eastman had prior experience working with Homeless Outreach Programs & Education. “It just seemed obvious that we should be doing something, especially when it’s an issue so close to your own bodily experience,” Eastman said. Now, a few years after its founding, PEP has expanded its efforts to include on-campus advocacy.
In addition to PEP’s packaging events, the club hosted a recent dialogue on the stigma surrounding periods.
Alongside the lack of product availability, both Shannon and Singh identified a culture of silence surrounding menstruation. “I would always get met with weird looks like, ‘Oh my gosh, why are you talking about this?’” Shannon said. “If the tampon’s not in the bathroom, it’s a little bit ridiculous for me to have to hide a tampon on my person when I go to the bathroom. It’s not like a covert operation.”
PEP has also held reusable menstrual product workshops in which they both distribute products and educate people on the pros and cons of using them. They have also partnered with HFC and the Hoya Hub to promote access to products on campus.
One of the tables at the event is focused on making packages for the Hoya Hub, Georgetown’s on-campus food pantry. “We donate about 30 or so packages a month to the Hoya Hub. We have the tampon pack, the multi-pack, the pad pack, so kind of trying to cater to different preferences and needs as well,” Russell said.
Kate Rogers (NHS ’20), last year’s co-president of PEP and pantry inventory manager of the Hoya Hub, was instrumental in getting menstrual products regularly stocked in the pantry. Rogers requested ad-hoc funding from the CSJ and ABSO to supplement the limited number of menstrual products that had been donated to the Hoya Hub. Each individual package costs about $2.50 to make and the group started out by stocking 15 packages. However, after a week, they had all been taken.
“I was familiar with how quickly food gets taken off the shelf in the Hoya Hub because I took inventory every week, but I was a little surprised with how quickly the menstrual products went as well,” Rogers wrote in an email to the Voice. “After that, we aimed to stock about 30 packages per month.”
Rogers noted that supplying menstrual products in the Hoya Hub would help make up for the fact that no men’s or gender neutral bathrooms stocked menstrual products. “The Hoya Hub became a natural solution because of its anonymity and easy access for all members of the Georgetown community,” Rogers wrote.
“As students and as people, no one deserves to have to worry about whether their period is going to affect their ability to go to class or participate in the activities that make them happy,” Rogers wrote.
Olvera explained that her administration’s initiative was an attempt to demonstrate students’ priorities in order to prompt university action. “We thought that in order to get something done, we had to first do it ourselves and show the university what the students care most about,” Olvera wrote.
After their plan did not receive funding, Nile Blass (COL ’22), GUSA’s gender equity chair, persisted with her own plan. Blass developed a new plan to increase menstrual product access on campus, which she proposed this past August. This plan was aimed at offering access to free and regularly stocked products in all women’s, gender neutral, and eventually men’s bathrooms by installing free, new dispensers. She also asked that the university track data on how many products are used weekly by observing the number taken from the machine’s stock to determine what type of inventory is needed.
“The primary purpose of the plan was to have new machines re-installed in all academic building bathrooms,” Blass wrote in an email to the Voice.
In Blass’s proposal, she estimated that each new dispenser would cost around $350, accounting for installation costs. Bulk boxes of tampons and pads cost $80 and $50, respectively.
“The administration was positively receptive to the general request of reinstalling newer machines where they already existed,” Blass wrote. The installation process is ongoing, according to a statement from a university spokesperson.
“The University is working towards this through the installation of new machines providing free menstrual products, as well as a phased replacement of pay machines with free ones, across the campus community,” the spokesperson wrote. “We plan to have at least one free dispenser in each academic building by early 2021.”
Following HFC’s petition, the university has committed to refilling existing dispensers once a week rather than once a month, as well as placing baskets of pads and tampons in some bathrooms that did not previously have dispensers, according to Kekedjian.
However, Kekedjian does not believe the actions taken by the university are enough. “If Georgetown wants to be a truly inclusive place, the school needs to actively work to remove educational barriers for students who may have disadvantages in accessing education,” she wrote in an email to the Voice. “A lack of menstrual products on campus serves as an educational barrier for female, trans, and low income students on campus.”
But Eastman, who now volunteers at a non-governmental organization in India managing its menstrual health projects, doesn’t believe that access to free menstrual products solves the problem. Instead, she wants to see more targeted programming designed to empower people who menstruate. “The menstrual movement, even in terms of our organization at Georgetown, needs to include more than just a discussion around product,” Eastman said. “The major solution lies in how can we allow women to feel more free and more connected with their bodies and not shameful of having periods.”