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Students are pushing for free menstrual products on college campuses

A container of free sanitary pads and tampons is mounted next to an empty metal dispenser in a women's bathroom at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
A container of free sanitary pads and tampons is mounted next to an empty metal dispenser in a women's bathroom at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Updated October 5, 2023 at 7:19 AM ET

Emily Estrada was a Resident Assistant on the campus of Michigan State University when she noticed a problem. While condoms were widely available for free on campus, that wasn't the case for an essential health product.

"Our own health center didn't have pads and tampons for free or like anywhere that you would go," she says.

A 2021 study in the medical journal BMC Women's Health found that 14% of college students struggle to access period products on a regular basis. Estrada says for those students that can often lead to health issues.

"Because you're compensating for having your period in ways that aren't healthy," she says. "Like using toilet paper, or rags or like, using the products that you do have for longer than you're supposed to because you don't have enough of them."

In another 2021 study – published in the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality – undergraduate students who experience what's called "period poverty" are also more likely to be depressed.

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Estrada sought to address the problem head on when she was Resident Advisor five years ago by forming a student-led group called Mission Menstruation and the students began offering free period products in busy areas of campus. Then, she and another student, Nupur Huria, surveyed hundreds of students to prove to the MSU administration that the school should provide tampons and pads for free in bathrooms.

"We found that 94% of the survey menstruators have found themselves in a situation where they needed a period product, but there weren't any available," Huria says.

Mission Menstruation was the first student group to speak with MSU administrators about free menstrual products. Estrada says she didn't anticipate receiving so much pushback that came their way but the administration was concerned about how the university would be perceived if it asked the entire student body to pay for products used only by some of the students.

After nearly four years of student advocacy, Michigan State did make a change. Allyn Shaw, MSU's Assistant Vice President for Student Involvement and Leadership, says the university hadn't thought about or considered offering free pads and tampons until Estrada and the other students came forward.

"(They) said how could we work together to make a change and we worked with them to do it," he says.

In January, the school finished installing free dispensers in all first-floor women's and gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

"So, the initial installation for the dispensers, the cost of installation, as well as the initial product for all the different pads and tampons is approximately $60,000 and $70,000 dollars," Shaw says. He adds it will cost the university around $50,000 annually to provide the products free to students.

There's no list of how many of the nearly 6,000 universities and colleges in the country --either private or public- provide menstrual products at no cost but there is a growing movement of student-led initiatives.

One of the first successful efforts was at Brown University in Rhode Island in 2016. Viet Nguyen was the president of the student body at the time and says the primary concern of the administration was the placement of menstrual products in men's bathrooms.

"Brown has a very high LGBTQ trans and non-binary population. And so, we wanted to make sure that if we were to roll up this initiative that it was inclusive of the entire student body," he says.

Earlier this year, the University of Mississippi began offering free tampons and pads in many bathrooms on campus.

Alex Langhart, the director of University Health Services, says that when he found out about the student-led project he wanted his department to be involved.

"It is amazing how supportive and collaborative departments on campus are. Everyone immediately jumped in to help," he is quoted as saying in Ole Miss News, the university's publication.

In California, the Menstrual Equity Act requires public schools grades six through 12 and state universities to provide free period products in bathrooms.

Estrada graduated from Michigan State University two years ago. She says the changes at other campuses and the ones she helped bring at MSU show it can be done and that schools should be able to offer menstrual products for free just like they do toilet paper.

"This would be a drop in the bucket to make the change at universities and they are just not doing it because the students aren't asking for it loudly enough," she says, adding Mission Menstruation exists to help students speak up. "We want to be the organization that is empowering students and giving them the tools to ask for this change on campus."

Now, Mission Menstruation has a network of students growing their own chapters and advocating for free menstrual products at their universities. It's also working to establish a system where students can assess which colleges throughout the country are offering the products for free.

Copyright 2023 WKAR Public Media

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.