Period Poverty in Canada and around the Globe
Should menstrual products be considered a necessity covered by health insurance or, at the very least, made readily available in public restrooms? There is a growing argument that supports such initiatives. After all, menstruation is a biological process experienced by most women, and is not a choice.
Every month, women all over the world menstruate. In Canada, menstruation typically begins between the ages of 11 and 14, and ends at menopause, around the age of 50 (Healthwise Staff, 2017). Estimates suggest that the average woman spends upwards of six years menstruating over the course of her lifetime (Kane, 2015). Studies have found that women feel that their period prevents them from fully participating in social activities and up to 70 percent say they have missed school or work because of their period (Dube, 2018).
Menstruation is considered a taboo in certain cultures, whereby some women in certain countries, such as Nepal, are banned from their home during their periods. Although this practice was outlawed by the Nepalese Supreme Court in 2005, banishment continues to occur in this country and results in some women going missing or dying during this time (Sharma & Shultz, 2019). Even in North America, periods are still overwhelmingly linked with shame and continue to be shrouded in secrecy. In Toronto and other major cities with a high proportion of immigrant and refugee populations, there are concerns that women’s health may not be well understood or respected. These customs severely disrupt any education and employment commitments, thereby contributing to a cycle of gender-based poverty.
There can be detrimental health implications for unsanitary measures taken during menstruation. For example, women who use the same tampon for a prolonged duration of time can develop infections that lead to toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. Furthermore, studies have found that unsanitary measures during menstruation can lead to an increase in lower reproductive tract infections (Das et al., 2015).
It is estimated that Canadian women spend up to $6,000 in their lifetime on menstrual hygiene products (Craggs, 2018). Women in rural communities can pay double the price for the same products found in larger cities, such as Toronto (Brown, 2017). Understandably, low-income women and women on social assistance find it difficult to allocate money towards this necessity. In 2015, Canada eliminated the tax on menstrual hygiene products (Watters, 2015); however, the high cost of menstrual products still causes these essential items to be out of reach for homeless, low-income, and marginalized women.
Non-profit Canadian organizations, such as FemCare, believe everyone deserves equal access to period products, regardless of their income (Craggs, 2018). When you enter a public washroom, you do not pay for toilet paper. Likewise, FemCare wants to see government subsidies for menstrual hygiene products not just because they are expensive, but because they are essential. FemCare has recently petitioned the Hamilton municipal government to fund free, universal access to menstrual products in schools and public facilities. In June 2019, the city of Hamilton approved a pilot project to study the effectiveness of the initiative. Additionally, all 60 public school districts in British Columbia will make free menstrual products available to high school students by the end of 2019 (Campbell, 2019). Should other provinces and public spaces follow this example?
Rather than viewing menstruation as unclean or embarrassing, there has been a recent movement to support and educate women and the general public about the topic. The 2019 Oscar-winning short film Period. End of Sentence tackles the taboo around menstruation. The movie revolves around a group of women in rural India who set up a cost-effective sanitary napkin making machine pioneered by Arunachalam Muruganantham (Stieg, 2019). Muruganantham created the machine after he realized the troubles his wife was facing due to the lack of affordable menstrual products in India. This initiative has led to safer sanitary measures and female empowerment in the form of financial independence for women living in rural India.
There are a myriad of social and cultural reasons why menstrual products might not be easily accessible, many of which are linked with the stifling stigma that persists around menstruation. Let’s begin a broader discussion about women’s health and menstruation. Together, we can end period poverty.
Brown, V. (2019, January). Moon Time Sisters helping girls and women in far north communities. CBC. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/moon-time-sisters-1.4963937
Campbell, C. (2019, April). All B.C. schools will have free menstrual products by end of 2019: Minister. Kamloops Matters. Retrieved from https://www.kamloopsmatters.com/local-news/all-bc-schools-will-have-free-menstrual-products-by-end-of-2019-minister-1359588
Craggs, S. (2019, December). Hamilton looks at buying menstrual products for low-income women and girls. CBC. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/femcare-hamilton-1.4939718
Das, P., Baker, K. K., Dutta, A., Swain, T., Sahoo, S., Das, B. S., & Torondel, B. (2015). Menstrual hygiene practices, WASH access and the risk of Urogenital Infection in Women from Odisha, India. Plos One, 10(6), 1-16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130777
Dube, D. (2018, May). One-third of young Canadian women can’t afford menstrual products, report finds. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4239800/canada-cost-of-menstrual-products/
Healthwise Staff. (2017, October). Normal menstrual cycle. HealthLink BC. Retrieved from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/tn9930
Kane, J. (2015, May). Here's how much a woman's period will cost her over a lifetime. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/05/18/period-cost-lifetime_n_7258780.html
Sharma, B., Shultz, K. (2019, January). Woman and 2 children die in Nepal menstruation hut. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/world/asia/nepal-menstruation-taboo.html
Stieg, C. (2019, February). A movie about periods just won an Oscar & it's not just a win for women. Refinery29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/02/224792/period-end-of-sentence-netflix-documentary
Watters, H. (2015, May). 'Tampon tax' will end July 1. CBC. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/tampon-tax-will-end-july-1-1.3091533