If toilet paper is free in dispensers, tampons should be, too: UCSC needs more period equity

Amanda Safi is a period-equity activist at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Third-year student Amanda Safi wants UC Santa Cruz to pay more attention to menstruators. She is a period activist who was thrilled in December when the university started supplying free period products in bathrooms. It’s a great step, she writes, but the university should put the products in regularly serviced dispensers — just like toilet paper. And the products should be safe for users and for the environment, which they are currently not, she says. “Having period products in baskets when we put toilet paper in dispensers sends the message that menstruators are an afterthought,” Safi argues.

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In December, UC Santa Cruz students started noticing something surprising in the bathrooms: free baskets of pads and tampons.

“Who is doing this?”

“Where are these products coming from?”

Students and staff who had been working on period-equity efforts for years asked this in email chains and meetings. It wasn’t long before we discovered that UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive had led the effort in collaboration with Physical Planning, Development & Operations, and it was an exciting surprise.

Let me offer some background: In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 367, the Menstrual Equity for All Act, requiring California public schools serving sixth through 12th grades, California State University campuses and California Community Colleges to stock bathrooms with free period products.

University of California campuses were not included in the bill.

Regardless, student leaders across the UC were advocating (and continue to do so) for free period products in bathrooms, which is probably what inspired the chancellor to make this move.

Last year, I collaborated with UCSC’s dean of students and with the physical plant/custodial services office to implement a pilot program in two buildings on campus. This pilot involved installing free Aunt Flow dispensers in the women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms. This was part of an effort to gradually work toward a systemic solution to period inequity, which is the disproportionate lack of access to menstrual products and resources that causes financial and physical distress for menstruators.

Student leaders across UCSC — including those in the Resource Centers, the Student Diversity and Inclusion Program and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) — have done similar period-equity work in providing free period products in residential halls and academic buildings for years.

Campus groups including WiSE, the Lionel Cantú Queer Center, the Womxn’s Center, the Student Union Assembly (SUA) and others are now joining efforts to form the campus Period Equity Coalition.

While baskets of free period products deserve celebration and complement the demands that student activists have been making, menstruators want more systemic change.

The students and staff in this coalition are striving to organize a more sustainable, unified group that will continue period-equity work after current student leaders graduate. Grounded in intersectionality, the coalition hopes to not only increase access to period products on campus, but also to build a culture of inclusivity and understanding of different menstruators’ experiences through event programming and destigmatization education.

The UCSC administration has shown support for our passion. Travis Becker, the assistant dean of students for strategic initiatives and policy analysis, described period products as “a very basic need.” He also said he “appreciates the spirit and ethos of collaboration with which the Period Equity Coalition has come together,” and that he’s “excited to see the impact they’ll have on campus.”

As a student, it’s reassuring that as public pressure from UCSC students, the state and even the nation has built up, the leadership at UCSC — mirroring trends across the country — has taken definitive action.

Those of us involved in period-equity work deeply appreciate the steps UCSC is taking, including offering baskets of free period products in campus bathrooms. We hope this is a first step — and not an endgame solution to period inequity on campus.

While baskets of free period products deserve celebration and complement the demands that student activists have been making, menstruators want more systemic change.

We need to take another step forward.

Building contractors do not think twice about putting free toilet paper dispensers in bathrooms during the planning process, and in the same way, we should be adding free period product dispensers to the order list.

If toilet paper is free in dispensers, period products should be, too. Having period products in baskets when we put toilet paper in dispensers sends the message that menstruators are an afterthought.

“I feel like the lack of attention given to this issue really highlights how little those in positions of power in these institutions think about how a lack of those products negatively impacts the community that needs them,” Mina Mudd, a third-year psychology major, told me. “Access to period products is often seen as a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but in reality, a lack of access to them can really make or break how easy of a day, even a week, someone is going to have when they need them.”

Damaris Pereda, the national programs director at the nonprofit PERIOD., emphasizes the impact that limited access to period products has on mental health: “Providing options for menstrual products in school restrooms can help reduce anxiety and increase confidence in students who menstruate, especially because nearly 1 in 10 college students reported experiencing mental health concerns every month because of a lack of access to period products.”

Sydney Ferris, a third-year sociology and feminist studies major, believes changes need to be systemic, not incremental: “We shouldn’t have to think of our natural bodily functions as a second thought. It should be a first thought. But it’s a fifth thought for people who aren’t menstruators.”

The systemic change we need happens with the menstruator in mind and with a thoughtful choice about what products are supplied.

Amanda Safi wants UCSC to supply environmentally safe products in dispensers.
(Via Amanda Safi)

Many period products have been reported to have toxic chemicals that have been linked to increased risk of certain cancers, hormonal disruption, high cholesterol and reduced effectiveness of the immune system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Period products also often contain bleach and dioxin, and the impact of this exposure can last up to 20 years and lead to “pelvic inflammatory disease, hormone dysfunction, endometriosis and various forms of cancer.”

Additionally, many period products are not typically made with the environment in mind. For instance, pads can hold up to 90% plastic, which largely end up in landfills.

UCSC partners with the company Waxie Sanitary Supply, whose products, like these, are outdated and unhealthy for menstruators.

Here at UCSC, the coalition is taking an intentional student-centered and social justice-minded approach to period inequity, which is why we chose to partner with and advocate for Aunt Flow, a progressive and innovative company that provides dispensers with free biodegradable and organic cotton period products.

Stocking bathrooms with these products regularly in dispensers makes having your period less stressful on campus. And these products not only protect the environment, but also protect menstruators’ health from toxic chemicals.

That is what UCSC and universities across the country need to be thinking about in searching for systemic solutions to alleviate menstrual inequity.

Amanda Safi is a third-year politics major at UC Santa Cruz and a period-equity activist.

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