Taboo threatens access to basic health rights. These student activists are fighting to overcome it.
“A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.”
With these words, the crowd erupted into applause for Melissa Berton and Rayka Zehtabchi, who had just been announced the winners of the 91st Academy Award for Best Short Documentary for their film “Period. End of Sentence.”
The documentary follows a group of local women in a town outside New Delhi, India as they learn how to make sanitary pads to sell for affordable prices. But in this town, menstrual misconceptions run rampant: Village elders advise young women to stay out of places of worship when they’re bleeding, and young men regard menstruation as an illness.
Aside from education, menstrual challenges can pose issues for health, employment, religion, and more. The documentary’s success is considered a victory for champions of menstrual and reproductive rights, propelling its subject into the national spotlight.
On a more local level, the menstrual movement has found a voice within the nascent student organization, PERIOD. at UC San Diego.
PERIOD. at UCSD was founded in 2017 when its founders realized that there were not a lot of public menstrual resources available to both students and the surrounding community, President Liliana Rodriguez, a John Muir College senior, told me. The organization dedicated their first year to community service, raising enough money and labor to deliver 300 period packs — kits containing necessary supplies to have a safe period — to homeless shelters in San Diego. This year, with the help of a partnership with local nonprofit Think Dignity, they were able to increase that number to 500.
PERIOD. at UCSD is a chapter of the larger PERIOD. national organization, which was founded in 2014. PERIOD. describes themselves as “a group of young activists across the U.S. united by the belief that menstrual care is a basic right” with a mission to end period poverty and period stigma. Their rapid growth in the five years since its inception speaks volumes to the ongoing change in attitudes surrounding menstruation.
Menstruation is still stigmatized even on home turf, and the effects of not talking about it are seeping into our nation’s health and politics. Many people living in the U.S. still lack consistent access to sanitary products such as pads or tampons.
PERIOD. at UCSD and PERIOD. work in conjunction to increase access to menstruation products across the United States. For the national organization, this means fighting to lift taxes on sanitary products that still exist in 39 states. For UCSD’s chapter, this means filing an initiative with the school to dispense free pads and tampons in campus restrooms.
In order to carry out this initiative, PERIOD. at UCSD’s members first had to hit Library Walk to collect signatures, said Secretary Noor Alomar, a Thurgood Marshall College fourth year. Then they had to collect data on how much it would cost the university in terms of supply and maintenance. After garnering student support, they needed any support they could get from school administration before presenting to the school board. Now they’re just waiting to hear the results of their work.
PERIOD. at UCSD’s mission seems fairly typical: provide and advocate for basic supplies to communities that lack ready access. But regarding it as just another service org ignores the nuanced history of menstruation as a socially and politically charged issue.
While it’s fairly difficult to find someone who will argue that homeless and low-income families don’t deserve food and shelter, the right to menstrual products rests on more shaky foundations. This is largely due to a lot of miseducation and misinformation, which creates a stigma that bars the topic from being openly talked about.
The impact of menstruation shame and period poverty on education has not yet been studied thoroughly. At worst, it can be dire, forcing girls to drop out of school. At best, it’s a mild nuisance that can diminish students’ full learning ability.
“Let’s say you randomly get your period [at school] and you don’t have a pad. That’s affecting your academics now,” said incoming Co-President Bianca Kermani, a Marshall sophomore. Will that student have to choose to go home early? Be late to class? Potentially miss a quiz or turning in an important paper? Many students already face enough challenges with their schoolwork; the least they could expect is to be able to complete a bodily function in peace.
In other countries, access to menstrual products only solves half the problem. Marni Sommer, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, shared some of her Peace Corps volunteering experiences in Eritrea with National Public Radio. She noticed that girls were disappearing from school around puberty. To Sommer, it seemed obvious that Eritrean schools, with no toilets or running water, weren’t built to sustain menstruating students. So students were solving the problem by self-selecting themselves out of school. According to the NPR interview, Sommer realized that “improving menstrual hygiene straddles three areas of activism that are often separate — water and sanitation, education and global health. And it wasn’t an obvious priority in any arena.”
Domestically, this also poses a problem for homeless people without consistent access to toilets or running water. A multifaceted issue such as period poverty will take a multifaceted approach to solve.
This is why PERIOD.’s three pillars — service, education, advocacy — are adopted by all of its chapters.
Kermani stresses the importance of educating people on what constitutes a “necessity.” “It’s important to focus on [menstrual education] regularly because we forget about it, a lot. Especially since it doesn’t directly affect everyone,” she said.
Everyone, including non-menstruators, should be able to freely discuss and learn about the topic. This is why Kermani’s agenda for the next school year includes starting a new health education program called “The Spot,” where members of PERIOD. at UCSD will table and answer any and all questions about menstruation.
“I’m taking more of a health education perspective rather than social justice,” Kermani said. “Because we can talk about social justice all we want, but in the end, [a period] is a bodily function for women’s uterine lining to shed once a month and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s part of life, so there shouldn’t even be a social justice question about it, but there is.”
Kermani and Rodriguez both expressed wanting to transcend the association of menstruation being solely a women’s issue.
“It has been a bit difficult to get those who don’t menstruate [to join],” Rodriguez admitted. “One thing we’ve been doing this past quarter is changing the language that we use, so we don’t say ‘women menstruating’ or ‘oh it’s like a women’s thing.’ We talk about it like it happens to a person.”
These small changes aim to increase inclusivity by removing the idea that menstruation is uniform or determined by gender identity.
Menstruation is part of the right to health, Kermani emphasized. By framing the issue this way, she hopes to raise more support for menstrual health rights from the general public — including men and non-menstruators.
It shouldn’t be tricky, but it is. Even though half the population doesn’t menstruate, their actions can still impact those who do.
Recently, Maine Congressman Richard Pickett claimed inmates in Maine’s jails did not deserve unrestricted access to menstrual products and instead should just ask for them from correctional officers when needed. And last summer, U.S. Representative Sean Maloney released a video of himself signing a $37 personal check for stocking the House of Representatives’ office building restrooms with sanitary products after the Committee on House Administration insisted that they were a nonnecessity not covered by the Congressional Budget Office.
PERIOD. at UCSD has a daunting task ahead of them as they’re up against years of misinformation and lack of discourse. But as I sat in on their first annual banquet, hosted by their cheery and sometimes sarcastic Publicity Chair Aniya Brown, a Muir second year, I found myself laughing along with a group of people I had just met at Brown’s one-liners and the mementos she was presenting to outgoing board members. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming — just the place where people could talk freely about challenging topics. And if you’re able to swipe a free tampon from a campus restroom anytime in the next few months, you have PERIOD. at UCSD to thank for that.
Photo courtesy of PERIOD. at UCSD.