By Meenu Pamula
BERKELEY— The struggle for menstrual product accessibility is far from new at UC Berkeley. But with a series of action-oriented student initiatives, the ASUC’s Department of Menstrual Equity refuses to go with the flow.
Hailing from the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the Department of Menstrual Equity aims to increase accessibility to menstrual products on campus through a blend of proposals, online events, and on-campus initiatives.
The lack of direct and easy access to hygiene products is an issue that impacts about half of UC Berkeley’s student population. For the past several years, students have attempted to institutionalize the distribution of free menstrual products throughout campus. Now, in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, these issues have only been exacerbated.
Menstruation can have significant impacts ranging from gender equity, economics, and global health. With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting women (specifically low-income women and women of color), the pandemic has served to increase the fight for menstrual equity, at the national, state, and local level.
One measure from 2017 has helped to ensure low-income students’ access to tampons and pads in school. Assembly Bill 10, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, ensures that any Title 1 public school (where at least 40% of the student populace qualify as low-income) that supports students from grade 6 to grade 12 must stock at least 50 percent of the school’s restrooms with free menstrual hygiene products. Additionally, Senate Bill 92, which exempts menstrual hygiene products from sales tax, went into effect in 2020 (expiring Jan. 1, 2022).
While these efforts are undoubtedly commendable, many still seek action from individual institutions— including U.C. Berkeley.
Student-run organizations at Berkeley include Happy Period (which provides menstrual hygiene kits to those who are unhoused and/or low-income) and Generation Flow (an initiative that brings awareness to the lack of affordable and accessible sanitary products.
The Coalition for the Institutionalization of Free Menstrual Products (CIFMP), a campus wide organization that supports the wellness of students by supplying free menstrual products, discovered that 87% of students— a staggering majority— feel as though there is a lack of accessible menstrual products on campus.
Furthermore, 76% of students have, at least once, gotten their period on campus and did not have access to any menstrual products. Tragically, the results of CIFMP’s study, which was conducted pre-pandemic, would likely be even more extreme if they were obtained in 2021.
As of April 2019, the CIFMP supplied free pads and tampons in the fourth and fifth bathrooms of Moffitt Library, one of the larger buildings on the Berkeley campus.
The success of their pilot program proves promising for other similar initiatives. In fact, during the 2020-2021 school year, ASUC Senator Prakash’s Department of Menstrual Equity, directed by Sana Desai, has been attempting to expand on CIFMP’s program.
Discussing the driving force behind the Department’s efforts, Desai explained that, “period health is a major equity and inclusion issue and having access to menstrual hygiene products is an essential basic need and we wanted to see that need addressed.”
In the fall semester, the Department submitted two grant proposals— the Wellness Fund and the CACSSF (Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees)— with the goal of funding a pilot program to implement 30-40 menstrual dispensers in Custodial Zone C throughout campus. Department intern Catherine Bauer elaborated on the action.
“Choosing Custodial Zone C was a great strength of the proposal because it includes the larger and more populated campus buildings.” Bauer explained, “The intention is to reach the greatest number of menstruating students.”
In a survey conducted by the Menstrual Equity Department, an overwhelming percentage of the respondents stated that free menstrual products would be beneficial, especially in times of emergency. If the grant proposals are approved, thousands of U.C. Berkeley menstruators will be positively affected.
“Hopefully, this initiative can act as a functional proof of concept and by next year we can prove that this is an important initiative that needs to be extended,” said Desai.
Desai noted that a fundamental takeaway from the grant-writing process was the necessity of students to place direct pressure on campus administration. “They [Administrators] have the bandwidth to reach out to all students, which can help promote a student-level realization of menstrual inequity.”
In addition to grant proposals, the Department is currently focusing on collaborating with Happy Period on an end-of-the-semester virtual event. The event, dubbed “Period Palooza,” will showcase the work of various campus organizations to combat period inequity, feature speeches by experts who will discuss reproductive rights and menstrual health, and have daily panels to address student questions.
“As part of the South Asian community, it is incredibly taboo to talk about periods and menstrual health. The sheer lack of education in this area, especially during adolescence is extremely detrimental to menstruators in the long run,” Desai stated.
“Our community on campus may not be culturally skewed that way, but even in Western culture, period talk is still taboo.”
After this school year, Desai and Bauer plan to continue working toward destigmatizing the discourse surrounding menstruation. They will continue to advocate for equity in an inclusive and intersectional manner.
Adding on to Desai’s sentiment, Bauer explained that “At the forefront of the movement are menstruators themselves, but to completely eradicate the stigma, there has to be a realization across menstruators and non-menstruators across various cultural campus groups…”
“Having access to free menstrual products is something so foreign to our thought about what a bathroom should look like — it’s just a foreign agent in a lot of people’s minds and shows that we don’t put women’s issues at the forefront of our mind.”
To learn more about the Department of Menstrual Hygiene under ASUC Senator Prakash, visit their Instagram page: @asucsenatorprakash or their Facebook page.
Meenu Pamula is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s Social Justice news desk. She is a fourth year student studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is from Fresno, California.
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