- by Alicia Sylvest

It’s not availability; Its accessibility.

Not 24 hours has gone by since we set up at the high school to hand out free period products, and I have been swarmed with messages of defense. So many are speaking out about how there ARE products available for students if they need them, but this isn't the root. "The products are free, and the students just have to ask."

Let’s read that again. The students JUST HAVE TO ASK. This is where we have the barrier between availability and accessibility. Its an amazing step in the right direction to have the products available, but they need to be accessible in a way that doesn’t induce shame and embarrassment. Our youth are missing school for these reasons below. On average, that’s roughly 50 days of school potentially missed when period poverty and shame are present.
We had students talk about not being allowed to take their bags with them to the washroom when asked to be excused. One student said that she was publicly shamed in front of her class. The teacher accused the student of intending to skip class because they wanted to take their bag. This student didn’t leave class, and they sat with used product on for the remainder of the period.

This is a medical crisis. This can be a deadly situation. One student told a story about a teacher saying “If you have candy, you need to share with everyone.” The student was trying to discreetly remove her period product from her bag. You know, because they aren’t allowed to take their bags during class time. (And since when is it ever okay to call out a student in shame for any reason, candy nor tampon?)

We had students talk about the quality of the products available. Words used were “uncomfortable” and “scary”. Students talked about the pads being so big that they aren’t discreet and show through their pants. They mentioned how difficult it was to use the tampons without applicators. It can be argued that product is product, but it is a detrimental factor into the shame and embarrassment these teens are facing around their bodies. Ultimately, it leaves them not wanting to access the products that are available. This doesn’t even touch base on the sensitivities some who menstruate face.

Organic, scent free products must also be available if not accessible. Diva cups and cloth pads are chemical free and environmentally friendly. If convenient and comfortable products aren’t going to be available, at the very least there should be pamphlets on how to use the products that are there for them. I can guarantee that if these students are asking us, complete strangers, what product they should use for their flow, they would appreciate discreet information on how to insert a tampon that doesn’t have an applicator or a string.

Most importantly, we had students talk about lack of accessibility. Yes. We KNOW that product is available. Yes. We KNOW others before us have worked to get products in schools. We know, and we applaud every step taken to reach the end goal. This isn’t a damn competition. This isn’t a protest.

The problem is that students don’t have the opportunity to get free product in an emergency for the reasons mentioned in this writing. The issue is that students don’t have the opportunity to get free product in an emergency without making it known they are having an emergency. The students were adamant on the system being - and I quote - "shit". When they said they have to ask for the product, it came with “so, we don’t ask because its embarrassing.”

I've just listed three crucial issues that are leading to the free products not being accessed; three crucial issues that must be addressed NOW. The school board and those who make the rules for these students must reconsider the process by which decisions are being made. Our youth do not deserve to be treated like infants with adults making decisions on their needs. They deserve to have a say in the decisions being made for them, for their bodies!