Why should period products be free in school, like toilet paper?

Author: Aditi

A 14-year-old girl, living in Singapore, goes to the Science Center for a school trip. What's the worst that could happen? Two scenarios with just one 'small' difference:

  1. Everything is perfect. She learns about science, performs new experiments, has fun with her friends and takes pictures.
  2. Everything is perfect. She learns about science, performs new experiments, has fun with her friends, takes pictures and then she gets her period.

Well, I don’t know about you, but the 14-year-old me would freak out if she got her period suddenly in the middle of her school trip. And this is exactly what happened to me. If period products had been available to me in the bathroom, this experience would have been a very different one.

period products for free in school means children can focus on education and particpation in class
Photo by RODNAE Productions

Unprepared for my period

Getting my period in an unknown place, away from home, was a scary experience. First, I thought about checking my bag for sanitary products, but I didn’t have any. Never in my life, would I have ever imagined that a 14-year-old's school trip bag would have to include sanitary products! Looking back now, how I wish I had had my period bag, as I always do being 19 years old and more wise. None of my friends had thought to pack any sanitary products with them either. Which 14-year-old would think about carrying sanitary products with them? None of us, even for just one moment, contemplated the idea that sanitary products should be offered for free in the bathrooms, just like toilet paper.

Too awkward to ask for help...

My next thought was to ask my teachers. I had a friendly relationship with them, but I just didn’t have the courage to ask my teachers. Maybe my fear was due to the entire period talk being taboo and I didn’t want to go through the awkward conversation with my teachers. As a 14-year-old all I wanted to do was run away from these awkward situations! 

... I just didn't have the courage to ask my teachers

Toilet paper is NOT A PAD

I had to do what I know now almost every girl has done in their life: use toilet paper! I had never thought about doing this previously, but you know.... desperate times call for desperate measures.

If there are no period products for free in school girls have to use what they can like toilet paper

A long and difficult journey back to school...

The journey from the science center to school was extremely long and awkward considering the situation I found myself in. I was very uncomfortable and felt helpless, having to use toilet paper instead of a period product was not reassuring at all. I was uncertain even how I would get a sanitary product once I got to school.

Arriving at school after my long journey from the Science Center, I immediately went to the bathroom . I wanted to get rid of the toilet paper and find a solution aka a trustworthy pad or tampon! I didn’t know how to manage this situation, but I knew I would have to face my fear: ask my school nurse and have that awkward conversation.

"I would have to face my fear:

ask my school nurse and have that awkward conversation."

Sanitary product dispenser - a saviour!

However as I reached the bathroom, I was very surprised when I saw a big pink colored PAD dispenser! I had never noticed it before because I always in a rush and never thought about even looking at it. I was shocked and very relieved?!

I had never imagined that I would need to use such a dispenser. Initially, I felt awkward and confused as to how would I use it. Even though it was a girl’s bathroom, using the dispenser in front of other girls made me open to their judgement and embarrassment. Periods are a taboo subject generally but especially as a middle school student. At that age, I thought periods were gross and I was being punished for getting them.

A huge relief to have access to pads in my school's bathroom

I felt relieved having access to pads in my school’s bathroom and I never realized the importance of having access to sanitary products until now! Reflecting on this experience, I am also quite shocked at the fact that the Science Center, visited by so many school groups, did not offer any sanitary products in their washrooms.

Why don't we offer period products be free in school, like toilet paper?

Why period products for free in school  is important - toilet paper is not a pad.

My internship this summer at Mondays has made me think much more about the need for period products to be free in school. I have experienced many situations where access to period products would have been greatly beneficial. I think that because the entire conversation about periods is considered by many to be taboo, we don’t question this lack of accessibility to sanitary products in places such as offices, schools and public bathrooms.

1S$ a pad

The pad dispenser at my school was a total blessing but there was a downside: I had to pay 1 Singapore dollar for one small pad! I was in need and I could afford it, so I didn’t think about the price at the time. But ... what about girls in other circumstances, what would they have done?

Considering income disparities, paying a dollar for a necessity such as a pad is atrocious especially at that desperate moment of need! In retrospect, $1 for a pad is expensive!  I do of course appreciate the fact that my school took the initiative to install pad dispensers in the bathroom, thus spreading awareness and ensuring we had sanitary products when we needed them. Accessibility of sanitary products in bathrooms empowers girls and make them more comfortable in school. It will also eradicate taboos about periods.

BUT toilet paper is there to help solve a situation that needs to be solved right there for a personal but very natural bodily function. For me as a woman, sanitary products are like toilet paper. If toilet paper is available for free in bathrooms, why aren't sanitary products?

"Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health"

Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygeine

I asked friends and family 'Why should period products be free in school?'

I interviewed 10 people of varying age groups about their views regarding accessibility to sanitary products and their period experiences at school and work. Like me, most of them hadn’t thought about the problem of lack of sanitary products in bathrooms.

In actual fact, just interviewing these people was a hard task for me. My interviewees were shocked and surprised when I brought up my personal experiences of not having access to sanitary products. Whatever their background and personal experiences, most of them had never before considered the importance and positive consequences that providing period products for free in schools and offices has.

"I never thought about having access to these products in bathrooms. This might be since periods are seen as taboo, something that should be hidden and kept away from public eye"


Shame and embarrassment

Whilst talking to my mother about this topic, I realised why many of us don’t think about accessibility of sanitary products in bathroom. The answer lies in the long established and very necessary habit of carrying your own products everywhere. Even as a student in an all-girls school, my mother would carry her own sanitary products in her school bag, due to the stigma of periods. Even at that all-girls school, she had to sneak her sanitary products into the bathrooms, sometimes keeping her pads in her bra or hidden under her textbooks.

"even at that all-girls school, she had to sneak her sanitary products into the bathrooms, sometimes keeping her pads in her bra"

While talking to my interviewees on the question if period products should be free in school, a common topic of conversation was the experience of hiding and sneaking products into bathrooms. A 16-year-old girl, studying in Zurich, mentioned how she hides her tampons in her pocket or carries a designated and inconspicuous ‘period bag’ to the bathroom. I was not surprised, there have been many times when I've snuck my pads and tampons into the bathroom and felt extremely awkward carrying them around in public. But why is it that we can carry a personal product such as toilet paper freely but feel ashamed of sanitary products?

Offer period products for free in school

For me, as woman, I don’t depend on anyone else when it comes to periods, I do everything to avoid that uncertainty of having no products available to me. Since that incident at the Science Center, I carry my preferred sanitary products everywhere. I am in control and responsible for that unpredictable but certain event. I feel comfortable and confident. Almost all women, carry some period products with them in case of emergency. In this case, doesn’t it make sense to have sanitary products provided to women in bathrooms, schools and offices?

Interning with Mondays made me realise the importance of having period products free in school. It is about being at ease in school or in fact at work or any public place. It is about being confident about your period. It is about being empowered as a woman.

"A confident period, a confident you!”

Contributing Changemaker Author: Aditi Babarkar 2021 Intern at Mondays