A menstrual cup and tampon, shown are just two of the options available to people who menstruate. (Pixabay)

A menstrual cup and tampon, shown are just two of the options available to people who menstruate. (Pixabay)

‘The need is so high’: B.C.’s period poverty crisis combatted by free-supply campaign

More than half of people asked by United Way have struggled to buy period products

When you think about donating to a food bank or an organization to help the less fortunate, what do you donate?

Cans of soup, maybe soap and other hygiene products? Likely not menstruation products.

More than 50 per cent of the population is forced to deal with periods throughout their lives, bringing painful cramps, hormone imbalances and blood.

But what about the cost? A pack of 40 tampons is around $9 to $12 and last one to two menstruation cycles. If someone begins their period at age 12 and enters menopause at 51, that’s about $3,100 to $4,600 in a lifetime. For a person already struggling to make ends meet, that can be a difference between keeping the lights on or a comfortable period.

Period poverty is an ongoing problem in B.C., impacting half of all people who menstruate, according to a United Way survey. But it doesn’t have to like that. Speaking to women behind the Period Promise campaign and a youth worker, Black Press Media investigated the problems the people on the ground see, and what they say could help solve them.

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Many people don’t think about the cost of menstruate. Even if you do have a period, there’s a good chance you just throw a pack of tampons in your shopping cart each month, or use a menstrual cup or period underwear, and never give it another thought. But Nikki Hill, one of two United Way Period Promise co-chairs, says this arguably small cost, added up over time, isn’t an option for everyone.

“People have to make tough choices in their lives. It’s one of those things where you if you need to think about food, or menstrual products, you might find another way to deal with your period, but you got to eat,” Hill told Black Press Media by phone.

Officially, the Period Promise campaign takes places from May 6 to June 3, but the need is year ‘round. In its first year, the campaign distributed about 30,000 tampons provincewide.

In 2018, the campaign distributed a staggering 220,000 products to community non-profits that work with vulnerable people. In 2019 that doubled to 500,000 and in 2020, despite the pandemic, the campaign was able to distribute more than 450,000 tampons and pads.

“There’s been times where we’ve taken like a flatbed truck to an agency thinking – especially in the early days – this is going to last them for a while,” Hill said “And, you know, the next two days later, they’re like, ‘they’re gone,’ – the need is so high, but no one talks about it.”

Advocates working to make tampons ‘just normal’

A big part of the silence gap is the stigma. Menstruation can be messy and embarrassing, especially for those who didn’t have someone to prepare them for what to expect.

That often happens with the youth that New Westminster youth worker Angelene Prakash works with.

“A lot of the youth that I encounter are mostly below the poverty line, they are immigrants or refugees and a lot of their families tend to be on some sort of government assistance,” Prakash said. “And along with the financial poverty aspect, there tends to be an added element of a cultural background where menstruation isn’t necessarily talked about.”

Over the six years that Prakash has been a youth care worker, she’s learned to simply set out period products because she knows they’re needed. She makes a point to mention them– casually. Need a drink, maybe a snack, or a pad? It’s all there, and grabbing some period products are no more stigmatized than grabbing a granola bar from the kitchen.

The point is to make them “just normal.” And it helps; her youth will grab a pad or tampon to get them through the day if they forgot their own supplies or some will take them for throughout the week, knowing they can’t get any at home.

New Westminster became one of the first school districts in B.C. to commit to providing free pads and tampons, both via machines in washrooms and from teachers and staff, back in 2019.

Prakash said that while she, as a youth worker, has had access to menstrual products for her youth for years and years now, it’s easy to forget that it’s not as normalized outside of those four walls.

ngelene Prakash. (Submitted)

But the statistics bear out how much more work needs to happen to normalize what is ultimately a categorically expected part of a female’s biological makeup.

According to the United Way research, 25 per cent of people who menstruate have gone through a period with proper products to help them deal with it. And as a frontline worker, Prakash has seen firsthand how people will go without period products in order to pay for other bare necessities.

Both Prakash and Hill said that the way forward is normalizing that need for menstrual products, in the same way that the need for soap or food is normalized.

Part of that is making sure that no one needs to go out of their way to ask for period products, in the same way you don’t need to ask for toilet paper on your way to a public bathroom.

READ MORE: Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

Including everyone

While for a teenager asking for a pad might be embarrassing, for a child questioning their gender identity and getting their period for the first time it can be harmful.

“That really does inspire a lot of us who volunteer to think about what it would feel like for a kid who’s already having to go through so much to have go back to the nurse’s office, if there’s such a thing anymore, (or) go to the front desk,” Hill said. That thought has been at the forefront of pushing for period products in all bathrooms, not just women’s.

“It’s not been an easy campaign; there’s been lots of debates about ‘why would you put tampons in men’s washrooms if there’s not a it’s not a gender inclusive washroom?’”

But whether it’s providing products for transgender, non-binary or otherwise queer individuals, or making sure that a dad can easily grab a pad for their daughter, Hill said it’s time to stop treating period products like they’re made of 24K gold.

“No one’s monitoring people’s toilet paper! If somebody needs menstrual products, they need menstrual products,” she said. “This is something that people need in their daily lives, and they should be there.”

A societal problem requires a societal solution

In a Period Promise survey, 18 per cent of respondents indicated that they missed school, 22 per cent missed work, 29 per cent community events and 27 per cent missed social events due to lack of access to menstruation products.

“That was one of the biggest things that we found with the research project that we just wrapped up in March is that it is that isolating factor, it is that cutting off of connections to community, and that people actually started to identify that if they had more accessible menstrual products, and public spaces and workplaces, that they would actually feel like they were more a part of that community,” Hill said.

And that has become even more pressing during the pandemic, which heavily affected women, whether in job losses (53 percent of employment losses in 2020 were women), or being tasked with the bulk of child caregiver responsibilities.

Hill said it often becomes a vicious cycle; people lost their job, so they couldn’t afford menstrual products. Then they had no way to handle their period out in public, so they don’t go out, worsening their chances of getting a job or getting access to services.

While there’s still miles of work to do in bettering access, many cities have come on board, as well as major employers like the Pacific Blue Cross.

A recent initiative includes London Drugs. Through a partnerships with the United Way called WellnessPeriod, any purchase of a qualifying menstrual product from London Drugs will result in a donation to address period poverty in the community.

Victoria, New Westminster, Burnaby and the Tri-Cities have all provided free accessible period products in city halls, community centres and other public facilities. And in Vancouver, period products are being stocked in facilities in the Downtown Eastside, where the need is especially high.

“I think we’re probably about 20 different businesses, unions, organizations, that have agreed to do it.”

But ultimately, Hill said this isn’t an individual problem and so it requires more than an individual-led solution. She’s inspired by countries like Scotland, which last year made it a legal obligation for municipalities to provide period products.

“We want to move forward with the province of B.C. to make it so that public buildings at a minimum have menstrual products available and then on the federal level, it’s anything that’s federally regulated,” she said.

“Essentially, we’d like to see all levels of government mandate within their jurisdiction that menstrual products are in washrooms and that then it starts to decrease that question of access.”


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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