Having to miss school due to one’s period or having to make the decision between spending money on food or sanitary products is a universal issue, and one only faced by menstruators in developing countries. The recent announcement of New Zealand committing to fight period poverty by offering free sanitary products in schools sheds light on the universality of the issue.
Period Poverty in Canada
In Canada, 1/3 of menstruators under 25 have struggled to pay for period products. It is important to note here that the category of ‘people who menstruate’ includes transgender and non-binary individuals not only in this statistic but also in the broader discussion on menstrual health, as they otherwise risk being excluded. Along with many other countries, the Canadian government has not recognized these fundamental necessities as such. This is evident through the federal government’s luxury of 1991, also known as the “pink tax” which treated sanitary products as luxury items rather than necessities. This tax points to the gender inequality at play; through this tax, not only were period products made inaccessible, but Canada racked in $37 million from menstruators. It was not until 2015, which is when the #notaxontampons campaigns occured, that it was removed.
While this tax has been lifted, sanitary products continue to be unaffordable. For many people who are facing economic challenges, or those who are housing insecure, menstrual hygiene becomes a choice rather than a necessity as they often have to choose between a meal or tampons. Those unable to pay often end up using unsanitary items such as rags, dirty socks, paper towels and newspapers. This puts many menstruators at risk of health issues such as toxic shock syndrome and infections.
Civil Society: Filling in for the Shortcomings of the State
Because of this, community organizations have proliferated to fill a void that has been left by the lack of response by the government, a lack of responsiveness that can be explained by in large part by the reason this public health crisis is yet to be addressed: stigma. Since this stigma associates menstruation with uncleanliness and disgust, it is not recognized as biologically healthy and normal. Subsequently, there has historically been a lack of dialogue surrounding it, preventing any changes from coming about. One of these organizations is McGill’s own, Monthly Dignity. This non-profit organization has partnered with John F. Kennedy High School at the beginning of this year, to make menstrual hygiene products more accessible for students who are unable to afford them.
Period Poverty in Indigenous Communities
Period poverty is a particularly interesting issue because it sheds light on a common issue both developing countries and developed countries are facing. At the same time, it highlights the varying levels of development within Canada. First Nations and Inuit communities are disproportionately impacted by this issue. For example, a box of tampons can be anywhere from $16-$45 in remote Indigenous communities. Subsequently, Indigenous menstruators who lack access to proper hygiene products are at risk of not attending school during their period. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, those living unhoused have significantly more difficult access to menstrual products. Indigenous people in Canada experience the highest levels of poverty, with ¼ living in poverty. Responding to this demand, Moon Time Sisters was established. Their chapters collect sanitary products and deliver them to northern Indigenous communities. Similarly, The Period Purse has taken on the responsibility of distributing menstrual hygiene products to marginalized women across Ontario. Evidently, civil society actors and local non-profit organizations have sought to improve menstrual health through tangible means, but have also sought to address the issue by targeting the stigma surrounding periods. For example, August is a lifestyle brand working to reimagine periods and normalize discussions of it on social media.
Civil Society Demanding State Action
Within the past year, there has been a paradigm shift, which has largely been caused by civil society actors. Hence, not only have civil society actors and local organizations been responding to an unaddressed issue but they are also putting pressure on the government to adopt new policies to help fight period poverty. Thus far, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have all committed to providing free menstrual products in schools.
There has been action taken for this trend to proliferate amongst other Canadian provinces. For example, a group in Ontario made up of four teacher unions is urging the provincial government to publicly fund menstrual products. In May, Edmonton announced that period products will be available in public washrooms. Importantly, this decision didn’t develop out of the blue but was a response to No Woman Without, the organization demanding this since 2018. Through lobbying and pressure by local communities and groups, provincial changes have come about.
How accessible is it?
While these moves are significant, steps must be taken to ensure that these products are truly accessible. Despite the progress, there is still a culture of shame surrounding period-related hygiene products, making it a taboo topic in many school environments. Thus, while these products may finally be offered for free, they are oftentimes still not fully accessible because they are hidden in cupboards and not readily accessible. Oftentimes, alternately, students have to go through a gatekeeper, such as a teacher, in order to access them. This not only shows the importance of tangible changes and the government providing the long-overdue free products but also the importance of targeting the shame surrounding it, which prevented the issue from being dealt with in the first place. Feminist movements and organizations, such as August, have begun this dialogue. By continuing this conversation, and by the government addressing the issue rather than keeping it hidden, the way periods are spoken of and treated may change in mainstream society.
Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao.
Jemima Maycock is in her third year at McGill University, currently pursuing a B.A. in International Development Studies and Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies (GSFS). With these majors as her background, she approaches international development topics and issues with a gendered lens. She is interested in women’s rights, particularly those of migrant women.