Free the Flow celebrate free menstrual products on campus


Nouse attended the launch of free period products which are now available across campus

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Image by Gracie Daw

By Gracie Daw

Today saw the launch of free period products available on campus in the gender-neutral toilets in the Spring Lane building and the female toilets in the Library foyer and the Ron Cooke Hub. Having free products easily accessible has long been a campaign aim of Free the Flow since they were founded in 2019.

The volunteering society was founded by President Holly, and a committee was created with the shared aim of providing free period products on campus for all who needed them. They believe that period products are not a luxury, but rather a necessity.

After years of campaigning, which was briefly disrupted by the pandemic, Free the Flow have achieved their aim. This summer term will see a trial of the free products, with a hopeful expansion over the summer break into other buildings across campus. Furthermore, YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell confirmed to Nouse that Wayne Campbell, the Academic Registrar has agreed to fund the machines for the next year.

Nouse attended the launch of the machines today which was full of celebration from members of the founding committee and supporters alike. Reuben, one of the Derwent Heads of Wellbeing, was in attendance and said he supported the effort because he “didn’t see why those assigned female at birth should be charged so much for necessities.”

Those at the launch had waited a long time for this day to come, not only because their campaign took longer than they had hoped, but because the machines had originally been intended to be installed in Spring term. However, because of shipping delays they did not arrive until over Easter.

The Free the Flow campaign started when the committee asked why free period products were not regularly available. Committee member, Kez, pointed out that condoms were regularly handed out for free on campus and were widely available, so why not period products also, given that they are a necessity to so many students.

In celebrating the success she encouraged people to use the machines to show just how necessary they are. She also said that with regards to questions of people taking advantage, she would prefer one person to take advantage if the machines were going to help ten people, which she firmly believed they would.

In a statement about the machines Patrick O’Donnell said that he was “really pleased” that students could “help themselves” to period products, and that there would be a “steady supply” with the machines being refilled daily by the cleaners similarly to toilet roll given that they had previously only been available on an “ad-hoc basis”.

From 2019, when the campaign began, Free the Flow collected research to present to YUSU and the University through a petition and a survey of students. This found that 11.4 percent of University of York students could not afford to buy period products and therefore went without. They also found that 42.8 percent of students had to miss university because of their period.

During the pandemic, they ran a postal scheme where students could anonymously approach them asking for period products and they would post them out on request, no questions asked. They noted that they received repeat orders signifying that some students consistently were unable to afford the products they needed.

Alongside their campaign, Free the Flow have also been highlighting the need for inclusive language around periods. Ciara, an original committee member, said that words such as ‘sanitary’ or ‘feminine hygiene’ were problematic because it suggested that periods were unclean rather than a normal fact of life. Furthermore, she highlighted the fact that not all women have periods, and not all menstruators are women.

Given that Free the Flow have now secured the trial of free period products on campus, I asked what was next and Ciara said they had national aims. They have now disbanded as a volunteering society and all but one of their original and only committee has graduated. This allows them to register as a charity or not-for-profit in the UK, meaning that they can continue to campaign for their aims nationally, something they hope to do in the near future. Speaking on their eventual aim, Ciara said that they wanted to be a charity similar to Amnesty, a national charity with societal branches in each UK university.

In addition to their national aims, they are hoping for the expansion of the machines across campus into more buildings as well as into disabled and male toilets when the building doesn’t have a gender-neutral toilet. Patrick O’Donnell said that this was also his hope and said that he was speaking to departments and academics who wanted them in their buildings.

Whilst there was a recognition that there is a long way to go in normalising periods in universities and across the UK, today was filled with joy as Free the Flow celebrated their campaign win.