It’s that time of the month. Your “monthly visitor,” like an overbearing relative who you can't escape, has arrived yet again at a very inopportune time.
Panicked, you raise your hand and ask your professor if you can use the restroom, where you discover that you forgot to replenish the menstrual products you usually keep in your backpack. You rummage through your pockets and shove some spare change into the dilapidated tampon machine, but to no surprise, it is empty.
After class, you hurriedly trek fifteen minutes from Dey Hall to the CVS on Franklin Street, where you grab two boxes of Always pads. There goes a chunk of your monthly budget and an hour that you could have spent studying for tomorrow’s midterm.
Menstruation shouldn’t be this inconvenient.
Though we ought to acknowledge how students have catalyzed substantive progress relating to period care, UNC must also strive to sustain these efforts.
In 2016, for instance, former UNC student Zaynab Nasif helped the Carolina Union Board of Directors pass an initiative making hygiene products available in the Student Union. Nasif’s work serves as an essential foundation for success – one that we must continue building upon.
UNC’s next steps should be to scale this initiative across campus and offer menstrual products for free. Students need these resources so that they can focus on learning, rather than fret over absurd costs, timely transportation and unjust stigmatization of their cycle.
Fortunately, several North Carolina universities model how progress is very possible, such as N.C. State University. Layla Saliba, an N.C. State student who leads advocacy group We Bleed Red, surveyed 36 bathrooms at the school and discovered that menstrual products were virtually inaccessible to students. Her findings motivated her to raise awareness for this issue and demand change.
“Condoms are seen as a public health item. We think pads and tampons should also be seen as a public health item,” Saliba said in an interview with Spectrum News.
Through her work, N.C. State announced plans to pilot a program that provides free menstrual products on campus.
Limited access to menstrual products at UNC, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, as the problem extends far beyond our Tar Heel “bubble.” One in four Americans with periods struggle to purchase period products due to financial hardship, according to the Diaper Bank of North Carolina.
Period poverty is particularly common in North Carolina, where menstrual products are classified as a “non-essential” luxury good. These items include a 4.75 percent tax in addition to a standard local tax, which costs residents approximately $8 million every year, according to state laws.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has exacerbated period poverty in North Carolina.
Michelle Old, founder and executive director of the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, said in an interview with Chapelboro that requests for period products have increased by 800 percent at the organization.
Around 78 percent of these individuals who receive period products work one to three jobs and spend approximately 14 to 16 percent of their monthly budget on these items when they cannot receive assistance, Old cited from the organization's research.
Not only does limited access to menstrual care harm students — particularly those who are low income — but it also perpetuates various stigmas about periods. The scope of the damage caused by taboos is substantial, as nearly two-thirds of teens report feeling ashamed and self-conscious due to a general lack of affordable menstrual necessities, according to research from Harris Poll.
Period poverty does not disappear once students begin college, so why has the University failed to adequately address the rampant stigmatization and inaccessibility of menstrual products?
Students pay exorbitant fees — from tuition to costs associated with housing — yet something as simple and as necessary as pads and tampons are not made accessible.
Publicly provided products — available to all regardless of gender identity — need to be at the forefront of UNC's public health agenda. Students should be able to rely on UNC staff to replenish these resources in a consistent manner, too. It's not uncommon for students to find tampon machines empty for months on end.
It's a moral imperative for our institutions to provide basic necessities to preserve our health and hygiene. UNC has an obligation to destigmatize and degender menstruation by keeping such hygiene items visible, in public spaces and accessible.
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