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Code red

Menstrual hygiene access is a human rights issue. It is a matter of agency, public health, human dignity and gender equality. But it may also be wrongfully framed as an issue at the heart of feminism, with little regard to the issue’s location within the context of individual privilege and disprivilege. 

In advancing the collective uplift of women worldwide, we must first understand and actively contribute to the amelioration of these positions. After all, non-inclusive feminism is not feminism. University movements in support of menstrual hygiene product accessibility must therefore follow suit. 

Roses are red, violets are blue and every day billions of women will receive their periods. Although the mainstream conversation on menstrual equity in the U.S. context surrounds unfair “tampon taxes,” discourse on menstrual equity begins with individuals in far more dire circumstances. 

In countries where economic development has brought along a relatively high quality of life, we are privileged to walk into restrooms where we find functioning toilets, soap and toilet paper. Poor menstrual hygiene is linked to cervical cancer in some countries, and without hygienic products, women and young girls are often forced to make do with infectious and unsanitary rags

It was not until March of 2016 when New York Congresswoman Grace Meng convinced the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to allow the use of homeless assistance funds for feminine hygiene products. Of the 549,928 homeless people in the U.S. in 2016, 50 percent were women; this means that a large population of individuals struggle daily for food, water, shelter, employment, medicine and standard hygiene products. 

In places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, girls will miss school when they are on their periods because they cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. Where graduation rates and life expectancy are low, alcoholism and teen suicide are rampant, and poverty indiscriminately afflicts suffering, women and girls face pricey, unfairly taxed costs to access basic hygienic needs.

Meanwhile, certain conversations on menstrual hygiene equity frame the matter as an issue of destigmatization. It is critical that individuals consider the distinction and relative significance of this matter, which is a function of context and perspective. For example, according to a United Nations study, approximately one in three South Asian girls knows nothing about menstruation prior to getting their period. Forty-eight percent of girls in Iran and 10 percent of girls in India believe menstruation is a disease. 

Harsh social taboos about menstruation exclude women from praying, cooking and schooling in communities worldwide. Facebook campaigns to destigmatize menstruation that do not address these realities are counterintuitive to a humanist argument for universal rights to hygiene products.

For students of low income backgrounds, tradeoffs in a convenience store (or overpriced student store) may be no different than those on the aforementioned Native American reservation. Women at Duke are late to class because they unexpectedly get their periods and cannot find pads or tampons. Though this predicament is dramatically different from the plight of women whose health and livelihoods are jeopardized by a lack of access to hygiene products, the underlying need remains: we must respect women and their bodies, and reorient social systems toward these needs.

In the U.S., some systems have begun this process. On July 13, 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law that increased access to menstrual hygiene products in city shelters, high schools and correctional facilities. After observing how men in her state purchase Viagra tax-free, Wisconsin Rep. Melissa Sargent is now working with others to make menstrual hygiene products tax-exempt in her state. Still, the U.S. federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program does not encompass feminine hygiene products. 

Activists, entrepreneurs, lawmakers, students and professionals are joining hands to challenge the taboo of menstruation. They are fighting for menstrual hygiene product accessibility and will hold institutions accountable. Parochial perspectives pose a detriment to this movement. Focusing on a limited, highly privileged understanding of menstrual equity is an injustice in itself for it alienates and curtails issues relinquished to the periphery—at a time where human respect and public health needs are already overlooked.

Rather than serve to delegitimize the movement across the U.S. and other countries wherein menstrual hygiene products are becoming more accessible, an informed broader understanding of menstrual equity legitimates the calls for product accessibility in American workplaces and schools.

The informed students, faculty and staff on college campuses who understand this are able to eruditely articulate the objective issues of menstrual hygiene product accessibility in our community. “[Menstrual hygiene products] are integral to the mental, emotional, and physical health of many students, and are necessary to ensure equal access to people of all genders and socioeconomic statuses,” explains New York University, where tampons and pads are provided in restrooms and offices throughout the city campus. If universities such as Duke can provide free condoms as a matter of sexual health, why not define tampons and pads, supplies for a biological reproductive process, as such? 

It is time for dynamic and progressive institutions such as Duke University to fully recognize this mockery and act upon it. Community members are invited to respectfully reject the status quo and hold our institutions accountable, while recognizing the privileged position of our calls for menstrual hygiene product accessibility. Public spaces that choose to provide toilet paper and soap must dedicate resources to support fundamental hygienic needs of our community members. 

In 2017, the Duke University Facilities Management Department installed tampon and pad dispensers in the Bryan Center. Academic departments and buildings have provided bins with products in their facilities, and a student-run pilot program has recently launched to provide tampons and pads in Perkins Library restrooms; however, the University has yet to assume this responsibility. 

Meanwhile, any space that puts developmental needs and the promotion of inclusive environments at the forefront of its mission statement should be eager to provide supplies for the menstruating students, faculty and staff who built and enrich those institutions.

Today, the University of Minnesota and Brown University are among several colleges and universities nationwide that now provide free menstrual hygiene products in their campus restrooms. The movement must continue. Menstrual hygiene product accessibility is a multifaceted conversation, and it raises questions of our contextual environments, perspectives and belief systems. Unity and informedness are paramount.

“This pilot program makes me feel like Duke respects my needs and experiences as a woman on our campus,” remarked sophomore Maddie Manning on the new temporary Perkins pilot. However, when supplies run out and the pilot concludes, how will the University demonstrate its respect of the needs and experiences of its menstruating community members? Providing free menstrual hygiene products—in the buildings where they study, learn, eat, sleep and thrive—is just the beginning. 

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 

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