It’s hard to believe that in 2020 there is still a stigma around menstruation. It is beyond clear that access to menstrual hygiene products and information about periods is a basic human right, not a luxury. As Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, manager of advocacy at YWCA Toronto, told me recently, no one "should go without access to menstrual products because of financial barriers [and] some menstrual products should be fully funded by the government.”
In July 2015, former NDP MP Irene Mathyssen sponsored a private member’s bill, which was passed in the House of Commons that month, to remove the so-called “tampon tax” from all menstrual products including tampons, pads, sanitary belts and menstrual cups. While important, removing the GST from these items does not make them significantly more affordable. It’s why some provincial governments are looking for ways to make menstrual hygiene free and accessible.
Last April, the B.C. government issued a first-in-Canada ministerial order that requires all public schools to provide free menstrual products for students in school bathrooms. Shortly afterwards, Toronto-area provincial opposition legislator Bhutila Karpoche tabled a bill to recognize May 28 as Menstrual Hygiene Day in Ontario. Karpoche was inspired to do so by community organizations like The Period Purse and FemCare Community Health Initiative, as well students from elementary and secondary schools in her riding of Parkdale–High Park who were part of the Girls Government program at Queen’s Park.
“I have been so impressed with their ability to articulate the problem of lack of access to period products like pads and tampons and their dedication to increasing access to products that help support menstrual hygiene management,” said Karpoche in a media statement at the time. “I hope my bill will help build momentum around this issue as these students continue their important advocacy work.”
Period poverty, the inability to afford menstrual products, is a big concern in Canada and around the world. According to a 2018 report from Plan International Canada, based on a survey of 2,000 cis women, one-third of Canadian women say they’ve struggled to afford menstrual products, and 83% say they feel their period prevents them from fully participating in activities, while 70% say they have missed school or work or have withdrawn from social activities because of their period. (This data does not capture the experiences of trans men and gender non-binary people.)
In fact, a large number of countries have implemented “menstrual leave” policies that give workers the option of taking paid or unpaid leave, if they need it, during menstruation. Unfortunately, most employers are not obligated to pay workers for the absences. Other countries, such as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia, have implemented menstrual leave through labour legislation. Italy recently worked on passing a menstrual leave law, however, those who want to take menstrual leave need to get a medical note to show their employer.
Menstrual leave is controversial, as it can reinforce workplace or societal sexism and is sometimes considered to be a type of reverse discrimination. Making sure menstrual products and education are affordable and accessible is more universally accepted as a way to address health implications such as toxic shock syndrome, which occurs when tampons are left in for an extended period of time.
For the longest time, menstruation has been treated like a secret that is only talked about among those who experience it, instead of as a natural, beautiful and powerful process. Breaking down such misunderstandings, and removing barriers to accessing menstrual products, are both fundamental to the goal of normalizing periods and menstruation.
If you are interested in helping to end period poverty in Canada, you can get involved by reaching out to community organizations in your area, including domestic violence shelters, Indigenous centres and LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups, among others, to see what items are needed. Plan International Canada has a tool on its website (plancanada.ca/periods-matter) that allows people to email their province’s minister of education to demand that menstrual hygiene products are made free in all public schools. And campaigns to reduce the stigma of menstruation, like those from the charitable Toronto-based The Period Purse, or Oxfam Canada, always need extra help.
Arushana Suderaeson is a development and database officer at the CCPA’s national office. Follow her on Twitter @ArushanaS. This article was amended on March 3.