Charlotte* is, in many ways, a typical university student. She’s bright and articulate, and she’s eager to analyze the world through the lens she’s developing as a sociology major. But when the school year ends, the 24-year-old, who lives with cerebral palsy and mental health issues, leads a much less typical life.
Between semesters, she says, she’s often homeless and broke. At 17, Charlotte left a troubled home life when she went to her university in Atlantic Canada, and says her mother made it clear she wasn’t welcome to return — not even for Christmas. She is a passionate advocate for disability rights and is working on a memoir, but she struggles to hold down work outside the school year. “I mostly stay in shelters or I sleep with men just so I have somewhere to stay,” she says.
Being short on cash can mean other hard choices, especially for necessities she can’t afford. “The last three times I’ve had my period, I haven’t been able to buy tampons, so I’ve just stolen them,” says Charlotte. “I don’t feel good about it. I study this stuff in sociology, and then I’m doing the behaviour.”
“Period poverty” is a concept that not all Canadians may be familiar with — it may even draw an embarrassed giggle from some. But across the country, there’s a growing awareness that the struggle to access menstrual hygiene products is no laughing matter, and activists ranging from local grassroots advocates to powerful parliamentarians have taken up the cause.
The reality is startling: more than two million women in Canada live at or below Statistics Canada’s low-income measure. And the highest rates of poverty are among those who are Indigenous, of colour, immigrants or living with a disability. A 2018 study by Plan International found that feminine hygiene products were one of the “top three material costs of being a woman.” It also revealed that one-third of Canadian women under 25 have struggled to afford menstrual products for themselves or their dependents.
That’s because menstrual products aren’t cheap. Depending on whose numbers you look at, women spend anywhere from $66 to $250 a year or significantly more if you factor in things like medication for painful cramps and cab fare to get home on particularly bad days. And this cost is borne entirely by people who menstruate. (It’s important to note that this group includes transgender and non-binary individuals, too.)
For economically disadvantaged people, menstrual hygiene often comes down to a choice: buy a pack of tampons or their next meal. Social assistance rates vary across the country, but in Nova Scotia, for example, the average person living outside the shelter system receives $300 per month for housing. Recipients get another “personal allowance” of $275 for everything else: groceries, telephone and toiletries. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the typical rent for a bachelor apartment in Halifax last year was $780 — leaving someone on social assistance without other sources of income with just $30 for expenses.
Emily Surrette understands these kinds of budget constraints. The 34-year-old mom from Vancouver spent more than a decade living on the streets. “I see people downtown all the time wearing pants covered in period blood,” she says. “Women on the streets, the last thing they want to buy is tampons. They need other things: they need to support their drug habit, they need food, they need smokes. And then tampons come around and they’re like, ‘Screw that.’”
One fight in the battle against period poverty that Canada has already won is the removal of taxes on menstrual products, but it was no easy feat. From the moment the GST was introduced in 1991, citizens and politicians of all stripes began agitating to have the tax removed from tampons and pads. That same year, Progressive Conservative MP Geoff Scott supported a petition with thousands of signatures — to no avail. NDP leader Jack Layton later argued against applying the GST to menstrual products. But the tax remained.
Finally, in 2015, a group of activists known as the Canadian Menstruators launched a campaign, #NoTaxOnTampons, with an online petition that earned almost 75,000 signatures. The group argued that the expense of menstrual hygiene products amounted to gender discrimination. Their public campaign worked, and the federal tax was finally lifted.
Several provinces had beaten the feds to the punch by eliminating their taxes on those products. All other provinces that charge sales tax have since followed suit. As a result, we have joined 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.”
A wave of charitable initiatives has since popped up across the country to further tackle period poverty. With the help of social media — particularly Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags — programs designed to provide free menstrual products to impoverished Canadians are gaining traction.
In an olive-drab meeting room at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library, Suzanne Lively welcomes the eight casually dressed women sitting around a table littered with silicone menstrual cups and information pamphlets. The women, who represent social services agencies around the city, squeeze and examine the DivaCups up close. Lively started this meeting of the “Friendly Divas” last year to provide free cups to people in need, “to help end period poverty in a sustainable way.”
Kathy McNab is here representing Adsum, an organization that offers support to homeless women, youth and families in Halifax. She’s seen period poverty up close. “We calculated a couple of months ago what the cost of tampons and pads would be, and it basically consumes about eight percent of someone’s personal allowance if they are on Income Assistance,” says McNab. “And what are the alternative products people use if they don’t have access? It’s everything from kitchen sponges to tearing up paper towels.”
For menstruating people who live in remote areas, actual resources can be few and far between. Nicole White started Moon Time Sisters in Saskatoon after seeing a news story that said young Indigenous girls in northern Saskatchewan were missing school because they didn’t have access to menstrual hygiene products. “I am a bit of an activist,” says White, “and I was like, ‘That is unacceptable!’”
So she began fundraising and, last year, she shipped 97,000 menstrual products, including tampons, pads, cloth pads and silicone cups, to remote northern communities in her province, many of which are accessible only by air or ice road. She says tampons that might cost $6 in Saskatoon can cost as much as $25 in a northern community.
“I talked to a family where the mom was in tears because she said she had never had actual products for her menses, and she was in her mid-30s. I asked her what she had used in the past, and she said, ‘Just a sock. I just rewash it.’” White pauses. “I am a Métis woman, but I am a middle-class Métis woman. And that has never been something I’ve had to navigate.”
Advocates note that there’s no “one size fits all” approach for product drives. People living on the streets and in northern communities may not have access to clean water, which can make it impractical to use environmentally friendly products like menstrual cups and reusable pads. In the Halifax library, McNab also notes that cups may not work for people who have experienced sexual violence or trauma. “We really need to be aware of the dignity piece around choice,” she says.
And while product drives are a good stopgap, they aren’t a long-term solution. Worldwide, a more radical idea is beginning to gain traction: what if governments made menstrual products freely available to people who need them?
In the United Kingdom, for example, one in 10 girls says she has had to improvise sanitary protection because she couldn’t afford to buy tampons or pads. Britain’s Labour Party responded by launching a campaign promising to fund free sanitary products for secondary schools, food banks and homeless shelters. Scotland announced in May that it would provide free menstrual supplies to low-income families across the country.
Canadian post-secondary student populations, and even some school administrations, are embracing the idea. Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and Centennial College in Toronto are providing products to their students this year. The Students’ Union at the University of Calgary has begun doing the same. Free tampon initiatives are also underway on many other campuses, including McGill and Ryerson.
Some activists have begun pushing government officials to follow suit on a national level. Carol-Ann Granatstein is a communications strategist in Toronto — and a budding standup comic. In June, she organized a Toronto comedy night called “Gags for Rags” that raised $5,000 to purchase menstrual products for three social service agencies in Toronto. Her real goal, though, is to push for a political solution.
To do that, she wanted to find out what it would cost governments to provide sanitary products to the most vulnerable girls and women across the country. So she enlisted Paul Smetanin, president of the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, and his report showed that Canada is home to about 205,000 female shelter users and school-aged girls from low-income families. If Canada were to provide sanitary products to those individuals, the annual cost would be $18 million — a drop in the bucket, he says, in the context of most government budgets. (By comparison, the federal government will spend $3.5 billion over the next five years to “advance gender equality” internationally.)
Granatstein plans to present these numbers to government officials. “It’s an equal opportunity issue because it holds women and girls back, not men, simply because of a biological function,” she says. “So then it’s also a human rights issue.”
There’s a consensus among activists that periods are moving into the spotlight. Christine Saulnier, the Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says this cultural shift may have risen out of the #MeToo movement’s emphasis on inclusivity and accommodation. “Perhaps there is an opening here for us to get free menstrual products,” says Saulnier. “I think there’s something very symbolic about having things publicly free. And we can’t undervalue the symbols.”
Nor can we ignore the reality: free menstrual products could make a world of difference to people in precarious financial situations, like Charlotte. “Oh my God, that would be amazing,” she says. She wouldn’t have to go around asking people in the cafeteria or the nurse in the health centre for supplies. “It would be one less thing to worry about.”
*Name has been changed.
This story originally appeared in our October 2018 issue with the title "Bloody expensive." To read more of The United Church Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.
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