By Emily Forschen, CalMatters
Audin Leung, senior at the University of California at Davis, has spent her entire college career championing a new concept: free vintage products on every campus.
âPeople are surprised, or they think it’s a radical idea, but it’s not a very radical idea because it’s a basic need,â Leung said.
Leung started advocating for better access to menstrual products when a friend got her period during class and couldn’t find tampons or pads. Leung said the embarrassment experienced by their friend is familiar to them and often forces students to choose between hygiene and dignity or stay in class.
In 2017, Leung founded Free The Period, a group of students who strive to make period products accessible on campuses in California. The group was behind a pilot program at UC Davis, which provided products for free in 24 toilets on campus.
Similar initiatives on campuses across California have come and gone. While many students are still recovering from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Leung says now is the time for legislative action.
Free The Period and other student organizations are now backing a California legislature bill that would require California State University, California Community Colleges, and public schools serving grades 6-12 to provide menstrual products free of charge in designated locations on the campus. The bill also strongly encourages UC and private universities to do the same, since the legislature cannot legally mandate these institutions.
“It’s really a matter of gender equity and basic human dignity,” said Jason Chen, freshman at Stanford University and chair of the Empowerment Collective, a lobbying group of California students. on policies that affect young people. âAs a non-menstrual individual, I don’t have to worry about where my toilet paper is or whether I will have access to toilet paper when I’m in the bathroom. “
While five states, including California, currently have laws requiring public schools to provide free menstrual products, Assembly Bill 367 would be the first in the country to include colleges and universities. Spokesmen for California Community Colleges and California State University said the systems had no official position on the bill. At the time of going to press, the University of California had not returned a request for comment.
For years, California college students have sought to bring attention to menstrual equity on their campuses, forming teams and lobbying administrators to fund the provision of free pads and tampons and practice.
Chen said it was essential to view period products the same way toilet paper or hand soap is treated – as basic hygiene products. One of the reasons advocates say such legislation has yet to be passed is the discomfort surrounding menstruation.
âI think not only in California, but everywhere is this idea that we’re not supposed to talk about it, that it’s taboo,â said Cristina Garcia, Assembly Member, a Democrat from Bell Gardens who introduced the law Project. “We legislate on experience, and the vast majority of (legislators) don’t have their rules, and the people who have their rules around them hide it from them.”
This is not the first attempt to require colleges to provide free menstrual products to students in California. A 2017 bill, also introduced by Garcia, initially included colleges and universities, but they were removed from the final law due to budget concerns. Instead, the legislation that was passed focused on low-income schools serving grades 6-12.
One of the challenges facing any menstrual equity law is law enforcement. An analysis of the California State Mandates Commission Act 2017 found that only 20% of low-income schools required to provide menstrual supplies have submitted reimbursement claims to the state. This likely means the products were never supplied, according to supporters. Leung says the current bill will clarify the requirements by making them a general rule for all schools with certain grade levels.
Bill tries to solve menstrual poverty – when someone cannot afford to buy menstrual products.
A January 2021 study published in the journal BioMed Central found that nearly 15% of female college students in the United States experienced menstrual poverty in the past year. The study also links menstrual poverty to mental health issues, such as depression, noting that menstrual health has long been overlooked as a staple of hygiene.
Dr Jhumka Gupta, a researcher at George Mason University and author of the study, said AB 367 is a first step towards menstrual equity, but its implementation is also important to watch. If the bill passes, she said, it is important that the people who most need free rules products receive them.
âWe know from my study that black, Latin, immigrant and first-generation women report more menstrual poverty,â Gupta said. âOnce the bill is passed, menstrual products are available, are we reaching the ones we need most? “
The bill initially required period products to be made available in 50% of campus washrooms, but was amended by the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee to say they must be distributed in a “central location. designated and accessible on each campus “.
Cost savings could be one of the reasons for the change. A committee analysis estimated that in addition to $ 3.3 million to install dispensers and provide products for K-12 schools, there would be a one-time cost of $ 7.5 million to install or modify distributors in the three higher education systems. This is in addition to annual spending of $ 3.4 million for California community colleges, $ 765,000 for CSU and $ 450,000 for participating UC campuses, according to the analysis.
But the change raised red flags for advocates, as they said it would exclude trans or non-binary people and limit general accessibility of products, as the original language of the bill required products to be available for women, all genders and men. bathroom.
“If you are a new student and you don’t know the campus very well and you start your period on your way to class, how far is it going to take you from point A, where you start, to point B , where is this centralized location on campus? Said Jenn Galinato, a pre-law student at Sacramento City College.
Garcia added that the change was “concerning” because it requires less than what some colleges are already doing. Still, Garcia said she was inspired by the hard work she saw from students on the matter.
âOur biggest advocates have been young students, or young people in general who have embraced this discussion and held lawmakers accountable by saying, ‘This is important, and don’t ignore us. Don’t ignore this problem, âshe said.
Garcia said her colleagues and constituents had started calling her the “Tampon Queen” because of her history of authoring menstrual equity bills, but preferred “Period Princess.” In addition to drafting the two bills regarding the availability of menstrual products in schools, she supported the suspension of the state tax on menstrual products. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an attempt by the legislature to do so in 2016, but this month lawmakers made the exemption permanent.
Advocates say the pandemic has made menstrual poverty a more pressing issue. The economic pressure of the pandemic has left many students in need of better access to basic necessities, including period items. Some campus pantries are able to provide sanitary napkins or tampons for students, but they often operate at set times or rely on community donations, making them unreliable throughout the day.
“More and more people are deciding between putting food on the table or buying sanitary napkins and tampons,” said Amanda Safi, freshman at the University of California at Santa Cruz and founder of the Period Equity Project. in San Mateo County, an initiative to provide menstrual products at no cost to people who cannot afford them.
Galinato said community college students would benefit in particular if the law is passed. âI’m going to be very frank about this: we don’t get as many resources asâ¦ the CSU and UC systems,â she said.
Community college students need affordable education, she said, and if colleges can provide vintage products, “that’s one less thing students have to worry about.”
The California Community College Student Senate passed two resolutions to promote menstrual health and equity earlier this year, one of which is co-authored by Galinato.
The Cal State Student Association expressed its support for AB 367 in a statement, saying it “is in the best interests of CSU students.” All students, regardless of sex and gender, should be able to attend classes and not worry about having access to menstrual products.
If the bill passes, schools are expected to comply by the 2022-2023 school year. It was adopted unanimously by the Assembly and is currently being examined by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Forschen is a member of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverages are supported by the College Futures Foundation.