Student groups plan free menstrual product pilot program based on survey data

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

A student-run initiative for free menstrual products in campus bathrooms is gaining momentum, with a bathroom assessment planned for Thursday and a pilot program expected to launch before the end of the quarter.

A survey released Sept. 28 to gauge student thoughts on the idea was met with “fabulous” reactions, said SESP junior Sophia Etling, a member of College Feminists and Rainbow Alliance, two students groups sponsoring the initiative. The survey collected 1,044 responses, Etling said, which comprises almost a fourth of Northwestern’s female undergraduate population.

Associated Student Government and Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators are also sponsoring the initiative.

“The results were really positive,” ASG President Christina Cilento said. “It reaffirmed our commitment to it. … (Students) gave great feedback on how to make it as inclusive as possible.”

Students in support of the effort presented a proposal outlining the results of the survey to vice president of student affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin two weeks ago and are now planning the implementation of a pilot program.

“We are looking to address the deficit of accessible menstrual products on campus,” the proposal said. “Just as the University provides free condoms for students to engage in safe sex, so too should Northwestern provide free menstrual products so students feel supported in their natural bodily functions, without financial barriers.”

Survey responses, which were included in the proposal, revealed that 97 percent of respondents rarely use the current dispensers in bathrooms, with 67 percent having never used them and 30 percent using them “very infrequently.” Nearly 90 percent of respondents said the potential program was an “important or very important” issue to them.

Students leaders will meet Thursday to further discuss the issue, after which they will assess bathrooms on campus to develop an effective pilot program. The program will place pads and tampons in certain bathrooms — those in the Technological Institute, Kresge Hall, the first floor of Main Library, Norris University Center and Annenberg Hall — to gauge how many products are needed and how much they will cost.

“We’ll be able to gather data on how many products were used and in how quickly of a time,” Etling said. “I am very confident that this pilot will prove to the administration that this is an urgently necessary program. … It just is beyond my mind why we would even need a pilot.”

Cilento said students hope to work with facilities management to make the refilling of menstrual products part of maintenance routine, as having students refill the menstrual products would not be a “sustainable model.” She added that she hopes it can be completely funded through ASG funds and project grants.

“I’m optimistic about it because I think that for this pilot version we’re not asking for a lot from the administration,” Cilento said.

Etling, who identifies as queer and was one of the first students to pioneer the program, said she hopes the program and placement of the menstrual products will benefit non-binary and/or closeted students.

“We travel in bodies that might not necessarily be societally sexed as the way we identify gender-wise,” she said. “I thought this would be a really good campaign to overlap with our current campaign to increase access to gender-neutral bathrooms all across campus.”

Nearly half of the survey’s respondents — 45.7 percent — said they preferred products to be located in individual stalls for discreet use. Another 35.5 percent said they preferred baskets by sinks, while 17.9 percent preferred free dispensers on bathroom walls.

Cilento said her only concern is the potential abuse of the products, which occurred briefly at Brown University after its student government implemented a similar program.

“Someone who does not have a financial or emergency need for the products … shouldn’t be taking the entire basketful of tampons,” she said. “I would just hope that students have some sort of ethics when it comes to using it so they recognize why we started it.”

Students plan to complete the inventory of bathrooms and assemble a detailed budget by the end of Fall Quarter and launch the official program in the winter.

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