There is an estimated 1.8 billion people around the world who menstruate. Despite being a normal biological process, menstruation remains cloaked in myths and misconceptions and access to menstrual products continue to be out of reach for millions of these people.
It’s known that period poverty exists around the world, and it’s something that menstruators feel is unfair and needs to be changed. The non-profits working hard to bring equality to the situation are extremely important and making a difference to those communities they have reached so far. However, it is a surprise to some that Canada has a large period poverty issue in urban areas and Northern Indigenous communities. Before we look at other countries in the world, we need to talk about Canada.
Nearly 25% of Canadian menstruators and a third under 25, have reported to have struggled to afford menstrual protection products for themselves or their dependants.
Plan Canada’s 2019 Gender Study shared that 68% of women in Canada felt that their period prevented them from full participation in an activity. More than half have missed school, work or social activities. The number was higher for women under 25 years of age, with 70 per cent refraining from participation.
Typically, menstruators can spend up to $6000 in their lifetime on disposable menstrual hygiene products. Those living out in more remote, and northern communities can be looking at spending double that price for the exact same products that are found in the larger urban areas. Often forcing them to find alternate solutions to their period protection, like old fabrics, tissue paper and other household solutions. Solutions that can in turn cause further health issues if unsanitary.
One fight that Canada has recently won against Period Poverty is the removal of taxes on menstrual products. However this was not an easy win, and has taken a long time. GST was introduced in 1991, and it included menstrual products. Canadian citizens and politicians of all sides began wrestling to remove the tax from tampons and pads, unfortunately, to no avail, and the tax remained despite continued efforts. Finally in 2015, a group of activists, the ‘Canadian Menstruators’, launched a campaign, #NoTaxOnTampons, with an online petition reaching 75,000 signatures. Arguing that the cost of menstrual hygiene products resulted in gender discrimination. This public campaign finally worked and the federal tax was eventually lifted, after 24 years of menstrual products charging federal tax.
Several Canadian provinces had already made the decision to eliminate the taxes on these products themselves before the feds caught up. As a result of this change in 2015 Canada has now joined with other countries, such as Kenya, Jamaica and India that exempt menstrual products from sales taxes. “It’s symbolic of the respect for the fact that [menstruation] is part of a woman’s life, and there shouldn’t be a gender-based tax on it” says Irene Mathyssen, the NDP MP who sponsored the private member’s bill to remove the GST. “It’s simply not fair.”
PERIODS HAPPEN AT WORK
It seems a little obvious to say it, however evidence in the work place that six million working Canadians are menstruating, is rarely seen. In many average Canadian workplaces, there are very few structures in place to support menstruation. Some have menstrual disposable bins, and an occasional coin operated supply machine, but nothing mandatory and out in the open. As menstruators, we have become very good at making it invisible. Abiding by the decades of menstruators before us, managing our normal biological function with as much secrecy as we can.
It is required by Canadian Labour laws for public and workplace restrooms to have whatever is required for use, toilet paper, hand soap, running water etc. Men have everything that they need without having to bring their own supplies to work with them; however menstruators, in many work places, are at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to use public and workplace washrooms on every menstrual cycle. Speaking from experience, we have all asked a co-worker in private and with discretion for a spare pad or tampon when in need. Another common solution to these situations is wearing products for longer than recommended, which in turn can cause short and long-term health issues from the risk of toxic shock syndrome and other reproductive health issues.
In 2019 the Canadian federal government began the process of amending the labour codes to require menstrual supplies to be free and available in federally regulated workplaces and washrooms. As the federal labour codes provide guidance to the provincial codes, hopefully, the provinces will also follow suit with this amendment.
The BC based non-profit United Way has a Period Promise campaign, this has played a pivitol role in moving individuals, organizations and businesses to sign their Period Promise and thereby pledging to provide free and available menstrual supplies in their workplaces and restrooms. Equally, in BC, the Worksafe regulation follows the same pattern of requiring everything in the restroom except menstrual supplies. However, the same Worksafe BC regulations include clause 4.85(3)(c) – this states that all work place and employer provided restrooms must be supplied with everything necessary for their use. This alternate wording captures and implies that employers should be stocking restrooms with free to be used tampons and period protection, or else be found in contravention of this regulation.
PERIODS HAPPEN EVERYWHERE
In more rural areas, and northern Indigenous communities, menstrual products are extremely hard to get hold of, and when they are available to purchase, they can cost anything from 2 x the normal amount, and up to 5 x the regular cost of the exact same products in more urban areas. In the last few years non-profit projects and new organizations have begun working to support and partner with communities to try to combat the period poverty in these areas.
Project Moon Time Sisters was started by Métis woman, Nicole Racette White, after she read a story about young women missing school because they lacked menstrual products. She launched the inaugural chapter of Moon Time Sisters in Saskatchewan in January 2017. Their volunteer-led organization partners with over 25 northern Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and the North West Territories to supply people who menstruate with free period products. Moon Time Sisters launched in Ontario in March 2017, partnering with over 30 northern Indigenous communities in Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories.
Finally, the Moon Time Sisters BC chapter was initiated by Carly Pistawka and Neha Menon at the end of 2020, to send products from the West Coast to isolated Northern communities, where products can cost 3-5x more than in BC. While mainland BC products may be relatively inexpensive, the price of products in Northern and Coastal BC can be very expensive due to the extensive transportation costs.
Additional non-profit projects are working within the more urban areas to bring necessary period products to low income families and individuals who cannot afford menstrual products. Working through community donations and product drives to collect the necessary products to be able to distribute to individuals, shelters and families in need of period protection supplies.
The projects activists are noting that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ for the product drives and who the products are going to. People living on the streets and in northern communities may not have constant access to clean water, which can make the more environmentally friendly products like menstrual cups and reusable pads and underwear less practical solutions for them.
WHAT NOW WITH PERIOD
While the product drives and the work being done is fantastic, it’s not a long-term solution. Worldwide, a more radical idea is beginning to gain traction: what if governments made menstrual products freely available to all people who need them?
Canadian post-secondary student populations, and even some school administrations, are embracing the idea, with free tampon initiatives becoming underway in a number of Canadian university campuses. Some activists have begun pushing governments to follow suit on a national level. In 2018, Carol-Ann Granatstein, a communications strategist in Toronto, wanted to find out what the cost would be for governments to provide sanitary products to the most vulnerable menstruators across the country. With the help of the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, she found that it would cost the Canadian government a mere annual cost of $18 million (a ‘drop in the bucket’, in the context of most government budgets.)
Since then individual provinces are working to get free menstrual products into schools, universities and workplaces. As well as working with the needs of the homeless and under privileged communities to reach their needs such as the United Way Period Promise who is doing an immense work.
While none of this is yet mandatory or regulated, as the conversation of period equity continues to build speed and audience, we can hope to see the changes that are being made and look to have period protection freely available in the near future, without having to fight for it. However there is still a long way to go for full period equity in all communities across Canada.
PHOTOS (c): Cristina Gareau / Nanou Photography
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