It’s about bloody time

Image Credit: Valeriia Miller from The Valeriia Miller Collection

UCD Students’ Union and UCD’s Free Period Product Initiative. Co-authored by Molly Greenough, Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich, and Carla Gummerson.

The government pledged in March last year to provide free period products in schools and universities, among other locations. This initiative was lauded for its intentions to reduce budget, stigma, and disadvantage regarding periods. While the commitment lays as-yet unrealised, many education institutions have the capacity and responsibility to lead by example. Universities, including UCD, have traditionally been places that push society towards new norms. Universities’ student bodies have often been at the forefront of pushing their institutions to embrace overdue changes. UCD Students’ Union has been at the forefront of pushing for positive change here in Belfield since 1975. We all need to reaffirm time and again that universities should not just comply with targets and initiatives like these, but should be leading the charge to a better world. That’s what we set out to do. 

Breaking through the shame and stigma that surrounds periods is a key component of UCD Students’ Union and UCD’s free period product initiative. We must normalise speaking about periods and the impact they have on those who menstruate. We’ve noticed first hand how uncomfortable some people are around the free pads or tampons we bring around campus or hand out at orientation events– you’d swear they were already covered in blood! It’s not their fault that society has stigmatised a natural bodily function. It is, however, our collective duty to push back against that stigma and work to educate ourselves, our colleagues, and our peers. 

Periods are not something that should be hidden from society; millions of people around the globe menstruate. Yet, people still stuff away a pad or tampon in a hidden pocket whilst running to the bathroom, and hope no one hears the crinkle of the packaging. We get embarrassed when we talk about menstruation, even with our closest friends. Many people suffer in excruciating pain for days on end but are expected to go about their day with painkillers that might only subside the pain. We hide these things from society because this is what has been instilled in us for a long time. It is now time for change. 

By virtue of its size and status, UCD’s provision of period products makes both a symbolic and a practical impact. Every year that the UCD Students’ Union has given out free provision of products, thousands of people have seen the products (some for the first time) and hundreds of people who menstruate have used them. This enabled UCD’s Main Library and the Students’ Union to come together to pilot a free period product project which has been running for over a year, following on from a submission that UCDSU made to the University Management Team Student Experience Group in 2021. 

Despite being a small pilot-scheme, it made a real difference. For the students who needed to get to class without the use of emergency toilet paper. For the students who didn’t have the means to buy them that day or that month. For the students who could have used a tampon for longer than is safe to keep the cost of their period down–potentially risking illness, or even death, by toxic shock syndrome. 

It’s hard to believe, but it is far from unbelievable, that cost really is an issue. 

Following on from these small-scale, bottom-up pilots and demonstrators, UCD, in collaboration with the Students’ Union has rolled out free, sustainable period products in 18 high footfall toilets around campus, available to those who need them, when they need them. This was planned on the shoulders of others, most notably Munster Technological University who gave their wisdom and experience generously, and Positive Period Ireland, who have worked with volunteers in UCD for several years now and continue to do so to this day. This new, top-down commitment will mean that thousands of students, staff, and members of the UCD community can avail quality, sustainable period products free of charge. 

Maybe that’s the way it should have always been? Certainly. But we still welcome the rollout of this initiative and will continue fighting for a future where free period products are as commonplace as toilet roll. 

This change to the provision of period products was born from student-staff collaboration that contributes to a wider conversation around periods– working to normalise, to break down barriers of access, to destigmatise. A collaboration that demonstrated that whether or not you get periods, you can and should be part of fighting any inequality and stigma associated with them. A collaboration that recognises that not everyone who gets periods has money for products and that its education institution wants to help. A small but demonstrable commitment to the dignity, equality and inclusion of each member of the UCD community. 

Society does not restart each year, academic or calendar, as a greenfield site. But, sometimes, a completely fresh set of eyes are necessary for issues to reveal themselves as completely inconsistent with a modern society. How might we explain the lack of period products in public toilets and facilities where toilet roll and running water is provided as a basic service? There is a PhD in each angle of gender, income, and health issues here, and we might never get to resolve those issues. But we can reduce this indignity and make menstruation as visible in their everydayness as urination and defecation. 

Is this a silver bullet, an overnight solution for gender and class issues? No. But it’s something real and tangible. And it’s about bloody time. 

Whilst we are the authors of this piece, this is the collective conversations of staff and students over a number of years. It is worth noting that this wouldn’t have been possible without the consistent and dedicated collaboration of UCD units like  UCD Library, UCD Estate Services, and particularly Mary Gallagher-Cooke, who championed this initiative from start to finish.