'Code Red' aims to stamp out period poverty on Munster campuses

"If toilet paper is free, then sanitary products should be as well,” Ellen O’Shea, MTU Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team said.
'Code Red' aims to stamp out period poverty on Munster campuses

Lisa Moran, Graduate Studies MTU and Head of the School of Humanities Prof. Margaret Linehan at the launch of the Code Red project. Photo: Darragh Kane

An important step towards gender equality is being made at Munster Technological University through innovative project Code Red which aims to stamp out period poverty on campus.

Free organic cotton-based sanitary products from Irish company We Are Riley will be installed in 60 dispensers across all MTU campuses in Cork and Kerry from October 12. Period poverty affects 1 in 2 teenagers in Ireland according to anytimeofthemonth.com and 50% of young Irish women have experienced issues around affording sanitary products.

But MTU is addressing this problem by providing free sanitary products, like it does toilet paper and soap. Professor Margaret Linehan, from the Code Red working group said: “Not every woman can afford to buy essential feminine hygiene products when they need them.

“On health grounds, this is a serious issue, but we should also be viewing it as a dignity issue. Providing sanitary supplies is not a luxury, but a necessity and MTU are happy to lead by example by investing in period justice.

“There are enough barriers going to college, we don’t want this to be another one. We’d like to roll it out city wide, we’d like Cork City Council and Cork County Council to get on board with this too.

“And Code Red is also about taking the taboo out of periods, it’s about having conversations as well."

Lisa Moran, of CIT’s Graduate Studies Office, said that Code Red has been “a passion project” for the working group outside of their day jobs.

"Code Red is about equality. About males and females being treated equally. About people having access to what they need without having to stress about it so that they can just focus on getting their degrees.

“One in two teenagers in Ireland faces period poverty at one point.” 

Dispensers will be placed in gender-neutral bathrooms so that intersex, transgender and non-binary students have access to them too.

And sponsor Lidl will also provide ‘period packs’ which students can take home for weekends. “Enthusiasm” is the word both women used to describe students’ response to the project so far. “The response has shown us that the demand is there for this,” Ms Moran said.

As well as single-use products supplied in bathroom dispensers, a limited number of re-usable products like menstrual cups will also be available upon request from MTU Students Union Offices. It is estimated that Irish women spend an average of €132 every year on tampons and sanitary towels.

“Nobody knows another person's circumstances or whether they can afford the products. If toilet paper is free, then sanitary products should be as well,” Ellen O’Shea, MTU Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team said.

MTU’s Code Red working group, made up of students and staff, was first mooted by Dermot Barry, MTU Technical Officer.

“My union, Unite, started running a Period Dignity campaign in the UK, and subsequently reached out to reps in Ireland,” Mr Barry said.

“Being a husband and a father I thought that this was a very worthwhile initiative and so I decided to set up a working group. We were lucky that the working group grew and now includes many dedicated and inspirational members.” 

Final Year Marketing student Eimear Devane, designed the Code Red name and brand. Currently in Ireland the ‘Period Products (Free Provision) Bill 2021, sponsored by TDs and Senators Rebecca Moynihan, Mark Wall, Marie Sherlock, Annie Hoey and Ivana Bacik, is before Seanad Éireann. 

As the country waits for this bill to be passed, MTU said that it is acting. Professor Maggie Cusack, MTU President, said: “Providing free sanitary products is another step towards equality across MTU.

“Code Red will make a difference to the lives of our students and staff on the most basic, human dignity level and will allow students to focus on what really matters while attending third-level education – working towards their degree.” Lack of access to suitable period products and the associated exclusion from daily living while menstruating can have a detrimental effect on peoples’ physical health, mental health and wellbeing, studies show.

Effects of period poverty

A survey by Plan International found 61% of young women felt too embarrassed to talk about their periods.

“Code Red is needed to break any stigma associated with periods and break socio-economic barriers for both staff and students,” Monica Moisuc, MTU Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer said.

In 2019, according to CSO figures, 17.8% of people were living in enforced deprivation in Ireland, with women more likely to experience enforced deprivation.

People from deprived households, those living in Direct Provision, or who are homeless, are more likely to have difficulty in accessing period products as well as pain relief and hygiene facilities.

Period poverty can have a detrimental effect on peoples’ health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that girls tend to drop out of sports when they reach puberty and this is often because of embarrassment, and in some cases, girls do not have access to products.

Using period products for a longer time than is recommended, or using unsuitable alternatives, can lead to infections and health issues. Women, girls, and trans people may feel they have no choice but to miss out on educational activities, work or recreation due to not having appropriate products.

Period poverty worldwide

On January, 12, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill to provide free period products to those in need. This now places a legal duty to make period products available throughout Scotland to all those who need them. England and Wales are to follow suit. On February, 18, the Scottish Government announced free products would be available in schools from June 2021.

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern said that “too many girls were skipping school because they weren’t able to afford pads and tampons”. Schools in deprived areas reported girls using toilet paper, newspaper and rags to manage their periods. 

And a study by Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand found that girls who experience period poverty face lifelong implications for their health, emotional development and career prospects.

Recognizing period stigma, the prohibitive price of sanitary products and poor hygiene practices, Sri Lanka is also introducing free locally made sanitary products to rural school areas. The Sri Lankan government also aims to build more toilet facilities.

Period Products (Free Provision) Bill 2021

In an Irish context, Senator Rebecca Moynihan has introduced a bill which proposes to convert the successful Scottish legislation into law in Ireland which is currently before The Seanad. 

The bill will place an obligation to secure the general availability of period products free of charge. These products will be available in schools, educational facilities and in the premises of public service bodies.

MTU is hosting a number of events from October 12 to challenge period taboos, starting with a panel of female sports people speaking about sport and periods. 

A workshop will be held teaching people how to make reusable sanitary products and other talks will examine contraception and periods, using various period products and Catherine O’Keeffe, Wellness Warrior, will discuss ‘Period Power’. Events will also be available online.

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