by Brooke Schultz
It’s hard to miss the facts when the message is plastered to menstrual hygiene products adorning the doors of Hodson Hall.
The display comes from an assignment in Dr. Christine Wade’s Human Rights and Social Justice course, which asks students to bring awareness on campus to a campaign of their choice.
“We decided to focus specifically on girls’ education in developing countries as a mixture of the issue of education we voted for, and gender, which was [junior] Kelley’s [Gardner] issue pitch,” junior Rachel Martinez said. “In doing research, we found that the major block to girls’ education is their lack of feminine hygiene products. So, with Dr. Wade’s guidance, we decided that to raise awareness for this issue, we needed to be bold and do something that people would have to notice.”
To do that, the group — comprised of Gardner, Martinez, and sophomore Joanna Sperapani — decided to canvas the Hodson doors, student postings boards, and the windows of academic buildings with pads.
“Menstruation and feminine hygiene products are things that are generally taboo in our society to talk about. Socially it’s considered gross or just something we shouldn’t talk about. Forcing people to literally see pads and be confronted with the issue, we hoped, would spark a conversation about the issue. We also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just shocking, but also educational, which is why we put the facts on the pads,” Martinez said.
“Half the world menstruates; it’s a basic biological function,” Dr. Wade said. “Yet girls and women are taught to be ashamed of it, and are ostracized for it in some cultures. Men and boys are taught to think it’s dirty or something to tease girls about. I think putting sanitary products on display and encouraging a conversation helps to de-stigmatize periods a little.”
The group is raising money for Days for Girls, a non-government organization that provides kits with reusable pads to women and girls in developing countries. This allows girls to manage their menstrual hygiene without staying home and missing school. According to Martinez, the kits contain “eight reusable liners, four reusable heavy flow pads, two pairs of underwear, a soap bar, a washcloth to wash them, a menstrual chart with pictorial images, two gallon-size Ziploc bags for storage, and a large drawstring bag to keep them all together.”
The display in Hodson has drawn some negative attention from students.
Freshman Sydney Armitage said that she believes that the group is working on a great cause, but the use of the products is distracting.
“These pads, that could be used to help solve the problem that is being addressed, are being wasted. This isn’t nearly as important, but I have come to the realization this year of how much money I actually spend on feminine products, and it is frustrating to see them not used for their purpose.”
The menstrual products were purchased with funds from the Goldstein Program set aside for this purpose, and, according to Gardner, the leftover products are being donated to a women’s shelter.
“Despite controversy about our use of pads, it has sparked a conversation about menstrual hygiene management and sustainability in the developing world,” she said. “Before starting this project, I never really thought about how menstruation can have such a big impact and create such a barrier for education. I think a lot of women, myself included, take things like disposable pads and tampons for granted when some women around the world lack access to adequate education and resources to manage their menstruation safely.”
Dr. Wade said that, although there has been some controversy, the responses she has heard have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Some have asked whether the use of the sanitary products was wasteful — shouldn’t we be sending boxes of pads to girls in the developing world who need them?” she said. “The reality is that disposable sanitary products don’t work for their lives. Shipping them isn’t sustainable and they often lack access to improved sanitation to dispose of them. That’s why the students paired with Days for Girls to raise funds to provide re-usable cloth kits. The kits are sustainable, cost-effective, and designed with the input of the women and girls who use them. They’re even customizable by flow. Pretty brilliant.”
The display has opened up the conversation on menstrual health and hygiene for women at WC, too.
“There are young women on this campus who suffer pain with their periods in silence because they’re too embarrassed to talk about it — even with close friends and family… Breaking through that could save their life, or the life of someone they love. I’m very proud of my students for tackling this issue,” Dr. Wade said. “The campaign was designed to be provocative. I think it succeeds in that.”