Helpful initiative falling apart

DU’s sanitary pad vending machines malfunctioning, causing trouble for students

Dhaka University's attempt to break period-related stigmas and provide easier access to menstrual-hygiene products has hit a snag. Despite the installation of sanitary pad vending machines throughout the campus, many female students are left without the intended benefits due to the machines malfunctioning.

Students who have struggled to access the products despite paying money, and are now calling for urgent solutions.

The initiative was taken three years ago by Dhaka University Central Students' Union (Ducsu) in partnership with ACI Group to break the taboo surrounding menstruation hygiene.

The vending machines were supposed to provide easier access to the products and lower costs for almost 12,000 female students.

Along with Ruqayyah Hall, Shamsun Nahar Hall, Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, Bangamata Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib Hall and Kabi Sufia Kamal Hall -- the machines have also been installed at Teacher-Student Centre (TSC), girls' common rooms at arts, business studies, fine arts faculties, and the science faculty library.

Female students said the malfunctioning machines have caused more inconvenience than comfort. The machines  often offer low-quality napkins and do not provide pads even after payment.

Nineteen-year-old Sharifa Oishee had a similar experience when the vending machine took her money but provided  no product. She tried again but faced the same situation. "Every time I use these machines, they fail. I've lost the money every time as well, so I stopped using them," said the second-year student of English.

This correspondent polled 42 DU students, who expressed similar problems, including money waste, technical faults, excessive waiting times, and low-quality napkins.

Munira, a residential student at Ruqayyah Hall, said they had to rely on vending machines in the event of an emergency late at night because most stores remain closed at that time, but they run into unwanted problems because the machines barely work.

A few students from the same hall remarked that the facility varies in usefulness depending on the old and new buildings and dormitories; for example, the newly completed 7th March building has a fully functional machine.

Besides, each machine is meant to have two towels and two trash cans. The students were assured that they would always receive support from a female aide while purchasing a pad. Unfortunately, none of these services have been made available yet.

Female students are demanding continuous supervision of the process to make it more efficient. They also recommend the installation of a digital money-transfer system in case of emergencies.

Hasin Jahan, country director of WaterAid Bangladesh said, "Students spend a lot of time in their classrooms, which demands adequate supply of sanitary pads inside  academic institutions. Besides, female wash-rooms of educational institutions are often  unhygienic. This issue requires immediate attention."

Tilottoma Shikder, a member of the DU senate, suggested the need for campaigns to teach the students about the usage of the machines and speaking out when faced with problems.

"If a student complains about any malfunction, the service providers will give her an extra sanitary pad without any question," she claimed.

However, all is not bad. Each pad costs Tk 10 from the DU machines, which is less than what is charged at pharmacies. The machines are re-filled in time by ACI group every week.

Prof Tania Haque of women and gender studies said the initiative to install sanitary pads will advance the concept of healthy sanitation for women.

She urged the university authority to take central steps to install sanitary pad vending machines not only for students but also for female staff and faculty members.