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Should menstrual products on college campuses be free?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

College students pay for many essentials beyond tuition and books. And for some, a very personal health essential can often be unaffordable. It's why there's a growing movement at some campuses to end what's called period poverty, a lack of access to menstrual products, by providing them for free. Some students are working to make the effort even more widespread. Michelle Jokisch Polo from member station WKAR reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: If you walk into a public bathroom, you can usually find a vending machine with period products. Plunk in some coins.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS PLINKING)

JOKISCH POLO: And the emergency tampon or pad is available. Michigan State University now offers period products for free on shelves in many women's and gender-neutral bathrooms. The push for change began five years ago when Emily Estrada was a resident assistant on campus and noticed a problem. Condoms were widely available for free on campus, but when it came to an essential health product, that wasn't the case.

EMILY ESTRADA: Our own health center didn't have pads and tampons for free or, like, anywhere that you would go.

JOKISCH POLO: So Estrada formed a student group called Mission Menstruation, and the students began offering free period products in busy areas of campus. According to a 2021 study from the medical journal BMC Women's Health, 14% of college students struggle to access period products on a regular basis. Estrada says for those students, that can often lead to health issues.

ESTRADA: Because you're compensating for having your period in ways that, like, aren't healthy, like using toilet paper or rags or, like, using the products that you do have for longer than you're supposed to because you don't have enough of them.

JOKISCH POLO: Estrada and another student, Nupur Huria, started to push the administration at MSU, asking for it to provide tampons and pads for free in bathrooms. Huria says they surveyed hundreds of students to show there was a problem.

NUPUR HURIA: We found that 94% of the surveyed menstruators have found themselves in a situation where they needed a period product, but there weren't any available.

JOKISCH POLO: After nearly four years of advocacy, Michigan State did make a change, and in January of this year, it finished installing free dispensers in all first-floor women's and gender-neutral bathrooms in campus buildings. There are nearly 6,000 universities and colleges in the country, and there's no list of how many provide menstrual products for free, but there is a growing movement of student-led initiatives. Earlier this year, the University of Mississippi began offering free tampons and pads in many bathrooms on campus, following in the footsteps of the University of Michigan. And in California, the Menstrual Equity Act requires public schools grades six through 12 and state universities to provide free period products in bathrooms. Estrada is no longer a student at Michigan State University, but she says the success she's witnessed there and at other places show that schools can offer menstrual products for free, just like they do toilet paper.

ESTRADA: And they're just not doing it because the students aren't asking for it loudly enough.

JOKISCH POLO: Today, she's helping them speak up. Mission Menstruation has a network of students growing their own chapters and advocating for free menstrual products at their universities. It's also working to establish a system where students can assess which colleges are doing so on their campuses.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo in East Lansing, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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