Period empowerment at UC Berkeley

Illustration of The Creation of Adam but with women
Nishali Naik/Staff

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When people imagine female empowerment movements, most don’t realize that power is much closer to home. Not every womxn knows they can control their own menstruation, but methods exist. Generation Flow, formerly known as Ladies for Change, hosted a Menstrual Rights Symposium at UC Berkeley, where several gynecologists addressed how womxn can suspend their cycles for considerable periods using birth control. This liberation from a recurring week of pain can be life-changing for some individuals, especially considering The University Times reports that 66% of menstruators feel less able to pay attention in class during their menstrual cycle. Even having the option to postpone a cycle briefly for finals week, an interview or a big presentation puts the power back in our hands and equals the playing field. UC Berkeley has made great strides in improving students’ access to these health options, such as contraceptive pill prescriptions and renewals covered under the Student Health Insurance Plan, as well as free health counseling appointments with staff specialists.

While these health options do exist, many womxn may be unable to use them for various reasons. In any case, a vast majority of menstruators need monthly menstrual hygiene products; for some, this can be a financial burden. This is a concern for college students, as according to The Hill, 84% of Americans have missed class or know someone who has missed class because they didn’t have access to sanitary products. The term “period poverty” is used here to describe those who cannot get menstrual hygiene products due to financial barriers, and it affects people all over the globe, even right here on college campuses. In fact, according to the Coalition for the Institutionalization of Free Menstrual Products, or CIFMP, 43% of students state that menstrual products are a financial burden at UC Berkeley. This statistic mirrors the published findings of Anne Sebert Kuhlmann, an associate professor at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice. Kuhlmann surveyed menstruators from local nonprofit organizations and found that 64% of womxn couldn’t afford menstrual products within the year prior, and 46% couldn’t afford both food and supplies. Even if a person can afford these products monthly, the annual and lifetime cost of buying heavily taxed products is an extraordinary burden on menstruators. The considerable demonstrated need in our community is a major reason UC Berkeley has several groups advocating for menstruators on campus — so lend your support! 

Though there are options stocked in a few library bathrooms and some other areas, students still face barriers to obtaining sanitary products. Although many people only consider economic concerns with respect to the accessibility of menstrual hygiene products, our sociocultural attitudes also influence people’s discomfort in obtaining sanitary products. Given the social stigma around menstruation, many feel embarrassed asking for necessary hygiene products, and many aren’t comfortable leaving midlecture to get basic supplies when the need arises.

Generation Flow, a club we have both worked with closely throughout our time at UC Berkeley, works to reduce financial barriers on campus for students and other womxn who experience the economic hardship of purchasing sanitary products. In addition to this work, it also creates avenues for advocacy and works to reduce stigma through education initiatives that focus on compiling accurate, inclusive information. In 2018, Generation Flow held multiple collection drives to donate menstrual hygiene products to UC Berkeley and the CIFMP. This partnership works toward providing any womxn on campus with the proper hygienic products they need to be successful students. In addition, our organization has worked to create period kits for students that include sustainable alternatives, such as reusable menstrual cups donated from our sponsors.

The absence of menstruation in social discourse has contributed to the “period taboo,” which persists even today. As executive members of Generation Flow, we are constantly working to design new avenues to help people access menstrual hygiene products on campus. One project under discussion is an Uber-type app where people could sign up to give and receive menstrual products, and the platform would help connect you with the closest person who can provide you a spare. Though still in its early phases, this project will improve accessibility by increasing the availability of hygiene products on campus and by building an inclusive network of menstruators to empower one another through simple acts of kindness, such as giving a stranger in need your extra tampon.

Period empowerment is an ongoing movement to promote gender parity by eliminating extra barriers that menstruators face on a daily — or, in this case, monthly — basis, and the movement begins with you. One small way that you can get involved today is by signing a campuswide petition to make sanitary products free across campus. All you have to do is type in “Make menstrual products FREE on UC Berkeley’s campus” on to learn more. So join us as we make this generation one of the change-makers!

Jackie O’Hara and Kashish Juneja are undergraduates at UC Berkeley and executive members of Generation Flow.