Gemma Skuraton, DrPH, MPH, CHES, CDE, CDP, LAT, ATC, USAW, CPT, FMS, RYT-200, is a driving force. Throughout her career and in her current position as the Director of Student Wellness and Health Promotion at Georgia Southern University, Dr. Skuraton has worked to remove barriers to care and create a more equitable and inclusive environment for people in her community.
She has led countless initiatives, including advocating for a bill in Georgia stating that reproductive health in K-12 schools needs to be medically accurate. Dr. Skuraton and her team at Georgia Southern, also worked to design an eight-hour and four-hour peer-to-peer course in collaboration with the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential (GCAPP), which is appropriate for college-level educators and helps de-stigmatize sexual and reproductive issues.
Another major program that Dr. Skuraton helped launch (and now oversees) is the Period Equity Movement (PEM), a multi-campus initiative designed to promote period equity and reduce learning loss from menstrual product insecurity. This program recently won the 2022-23 NASPA Excellence Awards Gold Award in the Athletics, Recreation, Counseling, Health, Wellness and related category – and has been a driving force in combating period poverty in Statesboro, Georgia.
The Rising Need for the Period Poverty Movement
Studies have found that one in ten college students experience poverty, and 84% of students who menstruate in the U.S. have missed class time or know someone who has missed class time because they did not have access to period products.
There’s a misconception that students are staying in their dorms and bleeding into a towel every month, Dr. Skuraton explains, but in many cases, students “can’t afford menstrual products,” and end up extending products for longer than medically indicated which can lead to public health concerns like toxic shock syndrome.
“Students shouldn’t have to choose between buying food or menstrual products, and they shouldn’t have to buy or use menstrual products that are uncomfortable, unsafe, or inappropriate for their anatomy,” says Dr. Skuraton.
The Period Poverty Movement, which started at Georgia Southern but has since spread to other campuses, aims to support menstruating students by tackling the misperceptions around period health and improving access to menstruation products and reproductive health literacy. The program is largely focused on awareness, education, and supply distribution.
Through numerous grants and investments, including the Pad Project Grant, the program at Georgia Southern has grown to include over 60 different pantry sites, which are broken down into three different types:
- The Disposable Period Pantry, in which students receive up to a month’s supply of disposable products at a time.
- The Green Period Pantry, which allows students to choose from reusable and sustainable products like cups, reusable menstrual pads, or period underwear.
- Period Products On The Go, which gives students access to “as needed” pantries stocked with disposable products in each of the GS campuses.
Simply offering products isn’t the only solution to this problem, Dr. Skuraton says. “Providing supplies was always a part of the plan,” but “a lot of the time, we need to give students more tangible support to really address the issue.”
In addition to setting up and running the pantries, the program also works with peer educators to raise awareness for sexual and reproductive health, provide educational information around menstruation, and encourage fellow students to utilize the pantries. Right now, the campus has 21 peer educators, all of whom receive comprehensive, medically accurate, and culturally relevant reproductive health peer education certificates.
The program is promoted on campus through traditional marketing efforts, as well as during on-campus events. Period Pride Picnics, geared toward people of all genders and identities, are among the most popular events on campus and are considered a “highlight of the year” for many staff members. At these picnics, students of all backgrounds and identities are encouraged to participate.
Creating a Safe, Trusting Environment for All People Who Menstruate
To combat period poverty, institutions need to address the stigma surrounding menstruation and understand that the topic can be sensitive or triggering for many individuals, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+.
When it comes to reproductive health, Dr. Skuraton wants people to remember that “not all people who menstruate identify as women and not all people who identify as a woman menstruate.” Changing the language to “people who menstruate” is one of the first steps that can be taken to build a more inclusive movement, Dr. Skuraton explains.
Paying attention to what supplies are available and how they’re accessed is another factor that needs to be considered. For some transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students, wearing (and changing) menstrual products can be a safety concern. It can also trigger feelings of gender dysphoria for some students, which is why the university offers menstrual underwear.
When Dr. Skuraton first arrived on the Georgia Southern campus, the campus didn’t offer free menstrual products or contraception beyond condoms. At the time, students were even required to take their school ID to the health center to get access to condoms – and they were only allowed to take ten per month. Dr. Skuraton found this practice to be stigmatizing and concerning, so she convinced the institution to give out condoms more freely. Instead of forcing students to show ID, they gave out ten per bag, and included a consent message and instructions on how to use them.
Policing the distribution is often a barrier to access, which is why the Period Poverty Movement doesn’t track which students take which products – and allows any person on campus to access the pantries. One of the big initiatives of the Period Poverty Movement is to create safe spaces for students to access information and get supplies they need. By eliminating the fear of discrimination and de-stigmatizing the process of accessing, students are encouraged to really take advantage of the program.
As of March 2023, the program has distributed over 45,000 menstrual products, 2,500 of which were sustainable. From both the students’ and staff’s perspectives, the Period Poverty Movement has been tremendously successful. After being surveyed, 99% of students reported that having access to free products has improved their quality of life and most believe the program should continue in a similar capacity, if not expand.
What’s Next for the Period Poverty Movement – and How to Build Your Own Program
Dr. Skuraton looks forward to expanding the program’s marketing efforts and adding new branding to the project. She also plans to bring the program to other campuses in Georgia and around the country.
With some states now requiring institutions to provide free menstrual products to students, there’s a new incentive for some campuses to adopt this program. The challenge, of course, is finding the funding and the support to make it successful. Not every institution will have the same level of support that Dr. Skuraton and her team have received and this can make it hard to build pantries and supply the right products.
“You have to work with the people who are willing to work with you,” she says, especially in areas of the country where there’s a significant lack of diversity or representation.
In addition to working with custodial staff and other key members of campus, Dr. Skuraton recommends connecting with your institution’s LGBTQIA+ center, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, and/or Office of Inclusive Excellence, as well as other departments like the counseling center, the ROTC program, the athletics program, even housing and dining. Partnering with the right people will help make the program more successful and sustainable.
Ultimately, you need to be realistic about what you can do, Dr. Skuraton explains. Some institutions have the funding to put menstrual products in every bathroom on campus, others may decide to only put them in the first floor bathrooms. If you can’t do that, you can put up signs around campus that direct students to pantries where they can access the products, or you can work with peer educators to refill supplies on a regular basis.
Another key aspect to consider is which supplies to invest in. Disposable products are often cheaper, but sustainable products are longer lasting, Dr. Skuraton explains. They are also preferred by certain student populations, making them more cost-effective in the long run.
While there are different factors to consider, Dr. Skuraton is hopeful that more and more institutions will take the initiative to address period poverty and start building programs that are just as inclusive and sustainable as the Period Poverty Movement.
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