Nupur Huria led an effort at Michigan State University to get free emergency period products into campus bathrooms.
EAST LANSING—When Michigan State University student Nupur Huria first came to the school in the fall of 2021, she noticed a group was distributing free period products on campus. Something about the act inspired her.
“There has always been an extreme stigma surrounding menstruation in my Indian culture, but I have also felt lucky to grow up in an open-minded community that has encouraged me to use my voice,” Huria said. “Throughout high school, I felt a responsibility to embrace my Indian culture but struggled to go against my cultural norms.”
The stigma surrounding periods is just one of the barriers that menstruating people face throughout their lives. But there’s an arguably even bigger one—access to period products.
It’s such a big deal that it even has a name: Period poverty.
Individuals with lower incomes often have to put other needs like housing and food over buying the period products they need, which can be expensive.
A 2023 study found that almost a quarter of teens (and one-third of adults) struggle to afford period products. The answer for many people is to use products for longer than intended or use makeshift products, which can lead to dangerous consequences like toxic shock syndrome. Studies have also found that this lack of access can also lead to depression, poor education, and missed workdays.
Some states even add an extra tax to period products. It wasn’t until 2022 that Michigan officially did away with its “tampon tax”—a 6% tax on feminine hygiene products.
“Everyone should be able to take care of their most basic healthcare needs without an unnecessary added financial burden,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after signing the law doing away with the tax.
Encouraged by the group Mission Menstruation, Huria founded her own chapter of the organization at MSU, with the vision of getting free period products in all female and gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. For starters, Huria set out to recruit advocates for the organization, make their presence and services known via the university’s app, and begin raising money to reach more people.
“With a broader presence, track record of product usage, and positive feedback from menstruators, we were ready to approach the administration to fund campus-wide implementation,” she said.
A growing movement to increase period equity
Efforts like Huria’s and Mission Menstruation are part of a growing trend in communities and institutions across the US and Michigan to increase access to period products.
At the start of 2022, the City of Ann Arbor began requiring that all public restrooms carry free pads and tampons. Speaking to NPR, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor called it a “matter of equity and personal dignity.” Not long after, East Lansing adopted the same requirement for all city-owned restrooms.
In April of 2022, The University of Michigan also adopted its own program for free period products in public bathrooms.
All of these programs stemmed from one clear and widespread need: More access to period products and helping to prevent the loss of dignity that comes with losing that access.
“Period poverty and stigma are often ignored, but very serious, public health issues. They push many menstruators to adopt unhygienic practices, negatively impacting their mental and physical health,” said Huria, who is studying to be a physician. “Upon surveying students about what they use instead of period products when they are not available, we received responses such as toilet paper, paper towel, cloth scraps, and even socks—all of which can contribute to developing bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, UTIs, and Toxic Shock Syndrome.”
A successful effort at Michigan State
Initially, Huria said, Mission Menstruation’s plan for a campus-wide program was well received by MSU’s administration—but more information was needed.
“Although the MSU administration was very supportive, they lacked data that would justify the costs associated with a campus-wide program,” she said.
That is, until Mission Menstruation thought of a new approach.
“To demonstrate the benefits of free menstrual products, we rolled out a campus-wide survey, which confirmed the need and the deep-rooted stigma surrounding the topic,” Huria said. “I connected with universities with similar programs and brought them forward as examples of success. Using their advice, I developed and presented a phased implementation proposal, with a more palatable budget.”
In July of 2022, MSU accepted Mission Menstruation’s proposal to install free period product dispensers in all women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in academic buildings across campus. The process was completed in early 2023.
Looking forward, Huria, who is graduating from MSU at the end of this academic year, has used this momentum to work with organizations to advocate for product access in Lansing. She’s also worked to mentor high school students to create menstrual clubs so they can advocate for change at their places of learning.
Huria encourages people to get involved at any level they can, including speaking out to their local lawmakers to stop the stigma surrounding menstruation, and turn the conversation towards policy change—be it through letters, phone calls, or emails.
“All in all, don’t be afraid to be ambitious with your advocacy,” Huria said. “Breaking large-scale policy change into smaller goals makes any positive change attainable.”
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