Free menstrual products a must, but start with the poor first
For all the stigma stomping we’ve achieved in recent years, there’s one that still persists. And considering the monthly reality for nearly half the population — dating back to the dawn of humanity — it’s an odd one.
Some would be surprised that Canada’s behind the global curve on access to menstrual products, but we’re getting closer.
The Department of Employment and Social Development has announced it is initiating a 60-day consultation on proposed changes to Part II of the Canada Labour Code. This means menstrual products would be provided to workplace employees free of charge. The entire process to change the code will take 18 to 24 months.
Those impacted would include employees working in regulated sectors such as Crown corporations, transportation, banks, telecommunications, the department of defence and the RCMP, amounting to 40 per cent of an estimated 1.2 million federal employees. Current regulations require employers to supply sanitary items like toilet paper and soap, but not menstrual products.
It’s good to lead by example, but we should be more strategic in our efforts. While positive, the government’s plan doesn’t ensure women who need this most will get the benefit.
There has been a grassroots “Period Poverty” movement swelling in Canada, primarily led by young women. Halima Al-Hatimy in Hamilton, for example, founded FemCare to distribute feminine products to vulnerable population groups, and homeless women in particular.
The affordability point is an especially important issue for women and girls in remote and northern communities, where the prices of menstrual products can skyrocket well beyond what women see in other parts of the country. Single mothers with daughters of menstruating age are also disproportionately, significantly impacted by affordability.
Organizations like Al-Hatimy’s are working to close these gaps, but sustainable solutions from leadership are what’s really needed.
Think about the girls risking toxic shock syndrome by trying to stretch the use of a feminine product until they can access another. Then there’s the all-too-common practice of improvising with toilet paper, socks, paper bags or cardboard in an effort to manage, which can have serious consequences for both physical and mental health in the long term.
Leadership is welcomed from any institution choosing to engage in the menstruation movement. But priority for access to affordable or free menstrual products should go to low-income women first.
Municipalities have a role to play here in allocating budgets to ensure public institutions and city-run shelters and drop-in centres in particular are providing free menstrual products.
On May 28, Municipalities across Canada, including Hamilton and Toronto, will be celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day, which is aimed to breakdown the stigmas around menstruation. In 2018, 71 countries participated with educational events, community rallies, advocacy efforts, and private donations of products.
Provincial governments can engage by following the lead of British Columbia and providing free menstrual products in schools. B.C. also provided $95,000 in one-time support to the United Way Period Promise Campaign. Empowering grassroots organizations that have been working to make this change is an important piece of the puzzle.
In 2015 Canada removed HST and GST from pads and tampons, previously designated as “luxury items.” But if we consider the approaches taken elsewhere that focus on vulnerable women first, we can push further and faster in the right direction.
For instance, New York City Council made menstrual products free in public schools, correctional facilities and homeless shelters in a 2016 vote, with the rationale that menstrual products should be budgeted the same way toilet paper and soap are.
Kenya removed taxes on menstrual products in 2004 and began efforts in 2011 to see sanitary pads distributed to schools and in low-income communities.
Scotland was the first country to pledge free sanitary products in all schools, colleges and universities — a cost of $6.6 million CAD that impacts 400,000 students across the country. In Seoul, South Korea, there’s a pilot program providing free menstrual products through designated public facilities.
For some, this policy shift is uncomfortable, perhaps even painful. And we aren’t even talking about period pain-management yet.
Well, tough. This is just the beginning.
Wherever there is free toilet paper, there should be free menstrual products, period.
Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht