By Alex Tsai
In collaboration with the Women’s Coalition, ASSU executives Justice Tention ’18 and Vicki Niu ’18 have reinstated a pilot initiative to offer free menstrual products on campus.
Originally spearheaded by former ASSU executives Jackson Beard ’17 and Amanda Edelman ’17, the program provides free tampons in female, gender-neutral and male restrooms in the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, the Graduate Community Center and Kennedy Commons.
In continuing Beard’s and Edelman’s initiative, this year’s ASSU Executives hope to address inconveniences that students face while menstruating, combat stigmas around menstrual cycles and help dismantle financial barriers that prevent access to menstrual products.
According to Niu, the lack of free menstrual products in bathrooms hinders student productivity, education and comfort.
“[Menstruating] is a burden that a lot of people internalize,” Niu said.
The program is currently financed by the executive discretionary budget, which ASSU representatives can use to pursue a range of initiatives. While the budget is enough to continue the initiative for now, Niu worries that this funding is not sustainable given that future executives could allocate the funds to launch new initiatives of their own. Within the current budget’s confines, ASSU lacks funds to expand the project to provide free tampons in more restrooms on campus, a measure the ASSU hopes to take.
Niu hopes to collaborate closely with building management and eventually the University to develop this project. Partnering with the University, Niu says, would mitigate the financial burden on the ASSU budget and would allow the program to evolve from its pilot phase into something more permanent.
Gathering better usage metrics will help the ASSU gauge how much it will cost to maintain and expand the program — details that student government would need to explore if it wants to get longer-term help from the administration.
“On a principle level, folks really want to support it, but they need more evidence that this is something students really want and how feasible it is,” Niu said.
Niu argued that purchasing menstrual products poses a significant financial barrier for some students on campus.
Responding to a survey sent out on Oct. 31 by the ASSU soliciting feedback regarding the menstrual product program, an anonymous student remarked, “As a student on a full scholarship, I’ve had to make the choice between buying pads and saving my money for things like books and food. I’ve often chosen not to buy pads and make do instead. That shouldn’t be a decision any Stanford student should have to make.”
Niu concurred with this sentiment.
“It would really mean a lot to students for Stanford to take the charge on this and demonstrate that they are committed to making this campus equitable,” she said.
“Limiting basic supplies so clearly associated only with females is an example of institutions assuming the cultural norm is male,” another anonymous student responded to the ASSU survey.
The initiative to provide free menstrual products on campus is more than an issue of mere convenience, Niu said. She also hopes to change the pervading stigma around periods. Niu explained that one significant problem is the language used to describe tampons, pads and other menstrual products.
“They’re often referred to as feminine hygiene products, and periods are referred to as a hygiene problem,” she said. “Periods aren’t dirty — getting a period is a natural and necessary bodily function.”
In addition, Niu hopes to challenge preconceived notions society holds about periods and believes it is important to stock men’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in addition to just the women’s.
“Menstrual products are important for all menstruators,” she said. “Not all women menstruate, and not all menstruators are women, and that’s something we think is also important in terms of providing access and what that looks like at Stanford. That’s definitely central to how we’re building this initiative.”
Not all survey respondents were in favor of the initiative, though.
“Just like every other personal hygienic need, [periods are] something that functioning adults can take care of themselves,” the student wrote. “Just because half the population needs [tampons] doesn’t mean they should be free – everybody needs shampoo too but I’m not demanding Stanford provide me with it. If we used this money to fund free tampons for a local women’s shelter to alleviate some of that burden, I’d be on board.”
Another student remarked, “If I’m without a tampon I tough it out for an hour or two and put toilet paper in my underwear. I’d rather do that than live in a society where millennials think everything is owed to them, and they are born with natural rights to tampons and pads.”
Nevertheless, Niu said that reading the overwhelmingly positive responses to the ASSU survey has been “very motivating.”
In conversations with building managers who collaborated on the initiative last year, Niu discussed the possibility of students abusing this free resource.
According to Niu, two main concerns arose in the past year when free tampons were piloted. For one, students hoarded products rather than only taking what was necessary. According to Niu, who spoke with groups at other colleges pursuing similar initiatives, this issue is common within the first month of a program’s launch, but once students became accustomed to having the free resource, usage decreases. The second problem is most common in male or gender neutral bathrooms, where students are less likely to be familiar with menstrual supplies. Some students intentionally waste product by unwrapping it and scattering it on the floor, Niu said
To prevent potential misuse of resources and educate the student population, Niu plans to install signage in bathrooms to help users understand the principles behind the initiative and purpose of the supplies.
In addition to providing free emergency menstrual supplies in bathrooms, Niu hopes to expand the initiative by providing more affordable products for sale.
“Separately or in corollary to what we’re doing with building managers, we want to find a way to offer free or heavily subsidized menstrual products either through the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) or the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGen Office),” Niu said. “ SHPRC has menstrual cups, but they don’t offer a lot of disposable menstrual products [that] most people are more comfortable with. So we’re looking to explore that for students for whom it presents a financial burden.”
Looking ahead to the long term, Niu recognizes that students prefer different menstrual products and is exploring options to offer both tampons and pads. ASSU currently purchases organic cotton tampons from a wholesale vendor who donates a portion of their profits to homeless and low-income menstruators. Through this initiative, Niu hopes to “benefit folks in the community in addition to just at Stanford.”
Students enthusiastic about the new initiative framed it in their survey responses as fulfilling a basic need.
“Menstruation is not something you can control,” one student wrote. “It is a basic human function that nearly every female experiences for a significant portion of her life. There are water fountains in every building; there are bathrooms; there is hand sanitizer and napkins and towels. Why should period products be treated as a luxury rather than a necessity?”
Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.