UT Austin’s two university unions are set to offer free tampons and pads for students who may struggle to afford them.
The Texas Union’s complementary dispensers were installed in early November, while the Student Activities Center is expected to have its machines ready in about two weeks. In the Texas Union, the old dispensers that required 25 cents for a tampon or pad have been retrofitted to immediately release the product with the pull of a lever.
The pilot program started in late October and will last until the end of the fiscal year in August. Each building has an average of around 12,000 students coming through in a single day, so the University Unions budgeted $5,000 to see how far that takes them.
The unions' Executive Director Mulugeta Ferede says, ultimately, this is a question about money. Right now, the unions are taking on the full cost of the pilot program but they plan to partner with other organizations to help raise money – if offering these products for free becomes permanent. Ferede says he hopes it does.
“It’s a service, and a hygiene issue, for a population of our students,” he said. “To me, that makes sense.”
The idea to put free tampons and pads in the women’s restrooms has been something many groups have been pushing. The women's service organization Orange Jackets, the national non-profit PERIOD and other groups have been asking for free menstrual products on campus for a while now. But it was UT senior Mehraz Rahman who finally got things moving. Over the summer, she went to Ferede to first introduce the idea of making periods products more accessible.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I know that we don’t have period products available for free, but I think it would help if we could just, temporarily, have them be sold at the provisions-on-demand little carts at the unions buildings’” said Rahman, referring to the so-called PODs – the small stands that offer snack foods, school supplies and other everyday essentials.
Until Rahman said something, tampons and pads had not been considered everyday essentials. But once she brought it up, the unions director quickly agreed and the PODs started selling tampons and pads.
After seeing the administration's willingness to help with this initiative, Rahman began to wonder if she could push for what she really wanted: free tampons and pads in the restrooms. She sat down with Ferede a second time and explained to him that this is a question of public health.
“Condoms are freely distributed to everybody. We understand … it’s infection prevention,” Rahman said. “But the thing that gets forgotten about the conversation with periods is that the lack of access to these resources is also something that could be a public health concern.”
Rahman is referring to ailments such as toxic shock syndrome. It’s a rare, life-threatening illness caused by certain types of bacterial infections and most often occurs when a person leaves a tampon in for too long. But there are a multitude of other hygiene issues that happen when people do not regularly replace period products, such as urinary tract infections.
Once again, Ferede agreed with Rahman and launched the pilot program at the Texas Union.
UT is part of a growing worldwide movement to offer free period products on school campuses. But even though the topic is being brought up more often, talking about periods is still pretty taboo, Rahman says. And that leads to a big misunderstanding about what people with periods go through.
“Some of the research that we found is that a good portion of women experience irregular periods – it’s not something you can necessarily predict all the time,” Rahman said. “So, there’s a lot of different reasons why people can’t prepare for this advance.”
When periods come around unexpectedly, buying a pack isn’t so easy. A box of tampons or a package of pads ranges from $7 to $10 – not including the sales tax that Texas and 34 other states still apply to those things. For many students who are already struggling financially, that’s a lot of money to dish out every time a period comes around. This leads many people to just use toilet paper instead.
Ultimately, Rahman wants to make sure there are no barriers whatsoever for people who experience menstruation. This includes those in the transgender community who would want access in both men’s and gender-neutral restrooms. But for now, her plan is to just keep talking about periods and, hopefully, enough people listen.
“I’ll try to do my part to have those conversations and to educate people,” Rahman said. “But if I’m not met halfway, it’s not something I’m going to be able to do by myself.”