Student Activist Launches Free Menstrual Products Program

By Madeleine Simon

When Shannon Exley, a senior on the AU swim team, traveled to Bucknell University for a meet in January, she realized something was missing on AU’s campus: menstrual hygiene products.

“I noticed that when we were on their campus that they had free menstrual products in their bathrooms,” Exley said. “And I just thought that was really great. And I’d also heard about a lot of other schools starting to do this kind of thing.”

Exley didn’t want to keep the convenience of having free menstrual products on campus to just her experience at Bucknell. She envisioned AU implementing the same type of initiative. So she officially began working on the free menstrual products pilot program in February. The program launched this semester.

Both pads and tampons are now available in the women’s and gender neutral bathrooms in Kerwin Hall, the School of International Service, and the Bender Library.

“For people who are in those situations where they end up starting their period and don’t have anything, now they can just get what they need right there,” Exley said. “It’s definitely going to relieve a lot of anxiety that students don’t need to add on to their everyday worries.”

Exley’s program also partially relieves students of the heavy financial burden of buying their products. Tampons and pads can cost upwards of $70 a year, according to the New York Times. And in most states, women pay millions each year in taxes where menstrual products are considered “luxury items” or non-necessities. Menstrual products are tax-exempt in only eight states.

“Finding out how much people pay for this on average annually was just crazy,” Exley said. “I wanted to do something that would benefit a lot of our students who are facing these problems with finances…underlying problems you don’t necessarily see day-to-day but they are definitely happening.”

As Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus, Exley partnered with the publication to push her free menstrual product initiative. She initially wanted her staff to speak up about the issue, but eventually spearheaded the project herself.

“I started to do some research and started encouraging our writers at meetings to maybe start talking about this and start talking about why our school should do something like this,” Exley said. “And no one started writing about it and I was a little disappointed…so I just took it upon myself to write the article about why our school should do something like this”

Exley first wrote her article back in February, calling for AU to reevaluate its budget and relocate funds to supply these products. That same month, she also started a petition using the hashtag #Lady&theTramp. The petition now has 448 signatures. In March, Exley presented her initial proposal to the Office of Campus Life.

Exley worked with manufacturing companies HOSPECO and Acme Paper and Supplies to create her budget proposal. The Office of Campus Life, using Aramark as their supplier,  approved the pilot program in the summer. By Welcome Week, the university began installing the products in three of the buildings on campus.

“I think the Office of Campus Life was definitely on our side and really understood, once I had presented them with the information, what exactly we were trying to do and why we felt it was necessary to implement a program like this,” Exley said.

Exley was not informed of the exact cost of the program, but she doesn’t think it was very expensive. Even in her original budget proposal, which AU ultimately made cheaper, the expense wasn’t that high, Exley said.

While The Office of Campus Life was cooperative with Exley, they didn’t agree to everything that was in her proposal, she said.

“I asked originally for five buildings on campus to have these products,” Exley said. “And we asked for men’s restrooms too because we’d seen a lot of great feedback from other schools who had started doing that—putting these products in men’s restrooms.”

For Exley, it was important to advocate for everyone who menstruated, regardless of what bathroom they use.

“We started this program mainly for financial needs of those who menstruate, but know it would be careless to neglect the populations on our campus who menstruate who do not identify as female,” Exley said. “Also there is a small number of gender neutral restrooms on campus, and trans individuals may not always have access to these.”

The Office of Campus Life told Exley that there wasn’t room in the budget for those proposals just yet. But as the university continues to evaluate the program, Exley will push for these products to be in every type of bathroom.

“That’s definitely something that we’re pushing for in the future, to get those products in the men’s restrooms as soon as possible,” Exley said.

For now, Exley hopes the program has helped other students realize the importance of free access to menstrual products.

I hope that students are thinking about how much money this is saving some people who would ordinarily have to worry about paying for these kind of things on a regular basis,” Exley said.

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