Progress Period: Closing Menstrual Health Inequities at Duke

July 10, 2024
Science Magazine

In 2022, two-thirds of the 16.9 million low-income women living in the United States could not afford menstrual products. Half of these women must choose to buy menstrual products over food. Among college students, 14.2% of menstruating individuals experienced period poverty. While menstruation is a universal experience for those with uteruses, vaginas, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, the cumulative costs of menstrual products and additional taxes create barriers to menstrual health access that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities—in addition to existing disparities in their access to care. 

In North Carolina, the “tampon tax,” or luxury tax that is levied on various menstrual products, incurs thousands of dollars worth of taxes among menstruating individuals every year. Menstrual products are taxed at a 4.5% rate in North Carolina, creating resource constraints for menstruating individuals. This phenomenon has a name: menstrual health inequity. This term describes the “unequal access to menstrual products, education and reproductive care” that can have lasting impacts on the health and well-being of menstruating individuals. Lack of access to menstrual products can cause educational or professional absenteeism, restrictions from daily routines, and infections from unsanitary substitutions to menstrual products. 

Even at colleges like Duke University, menstrual health barriers disproportionately impact low-income students. On campus, few locations sell menstrual products, forcing many students to make their purchases off-campus. 

There is a clear need for menstrual products near student living spaces given the transportation and cost barriers. In 2022, an independent survey conducted by Progress Period with 230 respondents reported 90% interest in having access to menstrual products in dorm spaces. A separate survey by Duke Housing and Residence Life (HRL) found that 57% of 250 respondents find themselves without products when needed. 

Progress Period

In response to this need, Progress Period launched a partnership with Quad Councils across West Campus to implement free period products in dorm spaces in August 2023. Progress Period is a student-led organization that aims to eliminate menstrual health inequity on campus and in Durham through service, education, and advocacy. 

At the start of the Fall 2023 semester, Progress Period secured funding from Few Quad Council to implement a three-month pilot program installing free period products across all bathrooms in Few Quad. Members of Progress Period placed a clear plastic box in each bathroom stocked with pads and tampons of varying sizes at the start of November. On a biweekly basis, members of Progress Period re-stocked bathrooms that had run out of products. Next, Progress Period secured funding from Craven to install free period products across all bathrooms in Craven Quad in the Fall 2024 semester. 

Above: Progress Period members getting ready to stock the Craven bathrooms for the first time. Image courtesy of Sneha Sengupta (Pratt ’26).

Evaluating the Pilot Program’s Impact

At the start of the program, Progress Period and Few Quad sent out a survey to Few residents gauging interest in having period products on campus and rating the menstrual product accessibility on campus and dorm spaces. At the end of the three-month pilot program, the partnership sent out an additional survey that assessed menstrual product accessibility in on-campus and dorm spaces to determine whether the pilot program should continue. Respondents ranked accessibility on a scale of one to five with one being “not accessible at all” and five being “very accessible.”

At the start of the program, menstrual product accessibility was rated 1.67 on average. At the end of the pilot program, menstrual product accessibility was rated 3.9 on average, yielding a 133% increase compared to before the program was implemented. All 58 respondents supported continued access to free period products in Few Quad. However, the students that chose to respond likely felt more strongly about the program and thus may not be a representative sample of Few residents at large. 

Above: Prepared boxes of menstrual products that are integrated into every bathroom in Few and Craven Quad. Image courtesy of Sneha Sengupta (Pratt ’26).

Next Steps

By expanding collaborations with other Quad Councils on West Campus, Progress Period hopes to make menstrual products readily available in all dorm spaces. Future partnerships could extend to other organizations such as Duke Student Government to make period products accessible in other buildings on campus, such as classrooms and student activity centers. Additionally, long-term partnerships with HRL could provide sustainability to the program through funding and policy-level change. 

Menstrual health equity at Duke starts with access to free period products in on-campus spaces. By developing long-term policies that ensure accessibility and efforts to destigmatize menstrual health, Duke can take a step towards closing the menstrual health gap and providing much-needed access to products to menstruating individuals on campus. 

Cathy Xiang

Cathy (Trinity ’25) is from Plainsboro, New Jersey and hopes to major in Global Health and Biology on the pre-med track. She is excited to help provide an accessible platform on science news and research through Vertices!

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