still we bleed.
From menstrual products to leave, USyd’s menstrual support system is weak and barely visible. This is not just an issue for those who menstruate.
You’re an hour into your seminar, when suddenly you feel it. You realise that you forgot to restock your bag with a pad. You’ve never seen or heard about affordable period products being available on campus — let alone free ones — so you approach anyone you see, hoping that their generosity and better organisational skills mean that they are carrying a spare small square flowery package. Or you leave campus to find one yourself and miss class.
Periods are complicated. Menstrual pain can result in class absenteeism, disrupted academic performance, reduced concentration and participation. A European study found that two out of five people with uteruses had their performance in class disrupted by their period, with one in five having to miss class. However, the real number is expected to be higher due to a global lack of research into menstrual pain and related issues.
To investigate the extent of this issue on campus, I talked with fellow students to hear their experiences. These USyd students have commented on missing classes due to menstrual related issues or attending classes whilst feeling ill.
Student A described having to push themself to go “while feeling crap…and then spending the day wanting to collapse onto the desk or curl into a ball.”
All students surveyed felt they had no support from USyd in regards to menstrual issues. A recurring issue was a high required attendance rate that is difficult to upkeep with recurring period pains. Student B added, “I can’t miss many classes due to attendance policies, or I risk getting an absent fail which is why I often am just forced to go to class even though I won’t process anything because I’m not in the right headspace for it. The kind of physical and mental toll periods have on me is pretty bad and I would rather be resting.”
Student C explained that, “especially a few days before my period, my mental health declines and my body starts to feel feverish. It gets harder to leave the house and I end up skipping class for the day.”
As a result of these absences, students can fall behind on their coursework. This can become cyclical as menstrual related absences lead to more absences. Student C recalls that, “the feeling of anxiety worsens because I missed a class without telling my teacher, and this may lead to me missing more classes because of the guilt of missing the first one.”
The university has made progress in providing some form of free period products. When using ‘university’ in this sense, I refer to the student community rather than the University of Sydney’s’ formal structure. As clubs and societies on campus move to support students whilst the University publishes articles hypocritically celebrating research that endorses global period equity, whilst there has been no advancements from their end in addressing these issues on their own campus.
An overwhelmingly pink dilapidated dispensing machine with “MrsFeelGood” printed in thick cursive is still stuck to the walls of Manning bathrooms, providing a glimpse into one of the first few overpriced options USyd had to offer. Beyond the $10 pads from the USyd stores across campus, there are certain locations across campus where you would be able to find a pad or tampon for free. These resources are organised below by their funding source.
- Society funded
Currently, societies such as Network of Women (NoW), Sydney University Law Society (SULS) and engineering societies are known to provide free period products in certain locations across campus.
NoW spends $500 to $1000 in providing pads and tampons within the Abercrombie bathrooms, and commented on their current projects of expanding further onto other locations on campus. The SULS office has free period products available for anyone to drop by and collect, and have been working towards increasing accessibility within Law school bathrooms. Engineering societies across campus fundraise yearly to stock every bathroom (male, female, and unisex) in the PNR building, and received faculty funding last year for more products across other engineering buildings.
- USU funded
In a 2021 Honi article by Kat Porritt-Fraser highlighted that the University of Sydney Union (USU) at the time did not provide any free products, but instead a limited range of overpriced products in their USyd outlet stores. The USU justified this by saying that “due to our very low sales volumes and wholesale purchase arrangements, our retail prices are higher than what customers would typically pay at retail pharmacies or supermarkets.”
Today, all USU buildings (Manning, Holme, and Wentworth) have free Pixii pads and tampons available in male, female, and unisex bathrooms. USU President, Cole Scott-Curwood, confirmed the presence of “102 dispensers in all 51 bathrooms across our three buildings.”
Pixii is an Australian-based business that aims to provide free period products for workplaces and schools, advertised as “Australia’s most eco-friendly period products.” Pixii claims to be plastic-free, organic, hypoallergenic, biodegradable between six months to five years, manufactured using hydroelectric power, and transported using biofuel.
The introduction of menstrual products to male bathrooms in late 2022 was met with mixed reactions. These ranged from comments of appreciation to the alleged trashing of essential products at the bathrooms. Scott-Curwood explained that the change was implemented to “respect and support our gender diverse members.”
The USU is able to provide these products because of a permanent allocation of Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) funding, with a $40k budget in 2023. This means that student money provides the products, not the money of the University— a multi-billion dollar institution that generated a $1.04 billion surplus in 2021.
FoodHub is a collaboration between the USU and the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), that provides essential food and items to University students struggling financially or with food insecurity. The SRC have been able to push for FoodHub to include free menstrual products this year, due to an increased budget of $75k in comparison to $20k in 2022. FoodHub is located on level four of Wentworth and is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 2pm.
Lia Perkins, President of the SRC, has commented on plans of providing similar dispensers across campus. Nonetheless, questions are still raised as to whether students should be providing this service, or the University, with its substantial resources. “[The SRC] would like the University to provide free menstrual products in all bathrooms, and it is something I continue to raise at meetings with them,” said Perkins.
The Women’s Room on campus used to provide free menstrual products, however appear to no longer hold any at the time of writing. SRC Women’s Officer Alev Saracoglu commented that “the Womens’ Collective doesn’t actually have any involvement in the provision of free menstrual products.”
- Independently funded
In the basement female bathroom of Carslaw sits a small vending machine providing free Libra period product boxes — which include six tampons and two pads. The machine was installed as part of previous PhD student Alana Munro’s collaboration with Share The Dignity in 2021.
Share the Dignity is an organisation that aims to “bring dignity to women and girls experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, and period poverty through the distribution of period products.” The first Dignity Vending Machine was installed in 2016, and since has expanded to over 200 machines across the country.
The Dignity Vending Machine costs $25,000 to “build, install and maintain for four years with #PinkBox supplies.” It features a 10 minute delivery delay between each time the button is pressed to avoid wastage. Though, at the time of writing, the fully stocked machine at Carslaw presents itself as out of order.
The installation of the machine followed a survey conducted by Munro highlighting that “around a quarter of students have left campus to purchase products instead of attending class. Ninety-two percent also indicated reasonably priced products in student bathrooms would help them manage menstruation.”
You can occasionally find yourself lucky to find free period products, including menstrual cups and underwear being given out at Welcome Week. However, this did not appear to happen this semester.
The students Honi surveyed had limited information about the free products available on campus, ranging from not knowing at all to knowing about one location. This suggests greater broadcasting of products available on campus is needed to allow for anyone menstruating to have access to free pads and tampons. Student D pointed out that they were aware of Manning’s provisions; however, “it’s not even a building with classes in it.”
Many of the locations across campus, excluding Abercrombie, that provide period products, are ones that have little to none class presence, from lectures to tutorials. As a result, students must trek to locations away from their classes, missing out on content, in order to acquire an essential product.
Beyond the availability of limited free period products across campus, no other menstrual support is available. Numerous organisations and unions are currently pushing for some form of menstrual leave to be embedded into the Fair Work Act. The current proposed policy would allow one day a month off, twelve days in a year in total.
However, this would only be beneficial for employees of the University. A similar regulation, whether internally or externally formulated, needs to be introduced for students, which would reduce stress around attendance, content loss and participation. These forms of regulations are slowly being introduced globally. Kerala is set to become the first Indian state to endorse menstrual leave for students.
Despite the numerous news articles published by researched professionals on the USyd website, ranging from advocating for free products, leave policy to policy reform, the University fails to follow the research and advice of their own staff and students. The university commented, “we know the importance of removing barriers to access for staff and students.
The USU has provided free sanitary products (dispensers with tampons and pads) for menstruating students in all USU bathrooms since early 2022. These are available in female, male, gender-neutral and baby-change bathrooms across all USU buildings (Wentworth, Manning, and Holme). The provision of these products is supported by SSAF funding.
The University has also installed a free vending machine in Carslaw bathrooms.
Staff are entitled to take personal leave for menstrual reasons, with express provisions for this included in our latest enterprise agreement offer.”
The unequal distribution of free period products on campus is representative of the global scale issue of accessibility. The alleged trashing of the period products made available by the USU in the male bathrooms last year is evidence enough that greater education is desperately needed.
The New South Wales Government has begun a rollout of free menstrual products for public schools across the state. The government has installed 4600 dispensers, and has publicly endorsed the delivery of the Periods, Pain and Endometriosis Program (PPEP-Talk) for all students. There have not been any plans of expanding this initiative into higher education, as conversations surrounding government mandated free period products within universities are far from reach until the younger generation are able to access their rights to essential items.
Student D comments that “providing free menstrual products would be a start,” in order for the University to create an environment that is supportive of students that menstruate. However, addressing menstrual inequity is not just providing free products, it’s a vast area that is largely unexplored, but better research, policies and regulations surrounding menstrual leave and hybrid options are spaces that are proving to gain momentum and success.
We are all responsible for increasing awareness, education and advocating for greater accessibility. However, the responsibility for structural support of menstruating staff and staff should be placed on the University, with its billion dollar surplus, not clubs, societies and student unions surviving off student contributions.
USU outlets, since the 2021 article by Porritt-Fraser, have reduced the prices of their menstrual products from 10$ to tampons costing $6.50 – $7.00 a pack and pads costing $7.50 a pack.