Did you know period poverty affects millions of Canadians every year? Even so, a great majority of Canadians are unaware of what period poverty actually is. At its most basic definition, period poverty occurs when people who menstruate do not have access to period care and/or lack the education and knowledge of how to care for themselves.
There are many factors that contribute to period poverty. To help bring light to this issue, let’s dig deeper and look at the impacts of period poverty, consider why Canada has period poverty, understand who is most at risk, uncover some of the barriers to change, and how together we can fight for period equity.
What does not having access to period care mean?
Period poverty is a complex and overlooked issue that affects millions of Canadians, every day. Period products should be accessible to all, but unfortunately, living in period poverty might mean that you have to make hard choices every month, like having to choose between putting food on the table or purchasing the period products you and your family need.
Being unable to access period products can look like a lot of different things.
It may look like missing out on school, work, or activities because of not having the necessary products.
It may look like using pads and tampons for too long to save money.
It may look like using items such as socks, clothing, paper towel, or newspaper as protection.
Not having access to period care can result in serious health problems, such as Toxic Shock Syndrome or infections. Plus, as these methods may not provide sufficient protection, this could cause stained clothing and belongings that would potentially need to be replaced, which can be expensive as well.
The potential cost of replacing items and missing work means the lack of period products comes at an even higher cost, which continues the cycle of poverty.
The consequences of period poverty continue to contribute to the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation. No one should feel ashamed of their body’s natural functions, nor should they have to put themselves at risk as a solution for a lack of access to products.
Why does Canada have period poverty?
Canada may not be the first place we think of when we hear the term “period poverty”, but did you know that approximately one in three Canadians under the age of 25 who menstruate live in period poverty?
Menstruation-related shame and stigma impacts governance: Because of the shame and stigma that still exists around menstruation and menstrual health, important policies related to these topics are often put on the back burner by lawmakers.
We have made some progress, though. In 2015, Canada removed the “tampon tax,” and period products are no longer subject to the 5% GST. While this is a good step, removing the tax doesn’t drastically improve the cost of period products. Instead, it’s more of an acknowledgement that menstrual hygiene products are essential not a luxury. While removing the tax does make period products less expensive in Canada, it doesn’t make them suddenly affordable.
Period care regional price variances: As Canada is so large, there are varying levels of access to period products, depending on where you live. For example, a box of basic tampons in metro Vancouver may cost a few dollars, which could already be a financial burden for someone. But did you know that same box in a remote northern community in Nunavut could set you back $45.
These price discrepancies across the country make solutions for period poverty even more challenging than it already is.
Who is most impacted by period poverty?
People who menstruate under the age of 25: In Canada, approximately one-third of people who menstruate who are under the age of 25 live in period poverty. Why so many young people? With the cost of living continually rising and employment rates dropping, young people are especially vulnerable to income insecurity. Whether they’re children of a family who lives in poverty or are living independently, access to basic hygiene products like period products isn’t always possible, especially if it’s a question of having a roof over your head.
Families struggling financially: Of course, young people are not the only ones who experience period poverty. For example, some parents must make the difficult decision every month between food to feed their children, as well as themselves, and period care products for those in their household who need them.
Homeless people: Other people who are significantly impacted by period poverty are the homeless, who are often not able to afford or access period care.
Trans and Gender Diverse Individuals: Transgender men and non-binary or gender non-conforming people who menstruate may also experience higher rates of period poverty, as access to period care products and menstrual health in general can be difficult and dangerous to access because of transphobia, ignorance, and stigma.
Period products may also be difficult for those who experience gender dysphoria while on their periods, which adds to access difficulties.
Remote communities: Finally, rural and remote communities in Canada’s north, are disproportionately affected by period poverty due to the gross discrepancy between period product prices in urban areas versus these smaller communities. Exorbitant prices for food, goods, and services in these communities contribute to high poverty rates, making period poverty especially prevalent.
How are other countries addressing this issue?
There are other countries, like Canada, that may have unexpected rates of period poverty, and some are doing important work to study it, understand it, and fight it. In 2019, PLAN UK released this document of best practices and innovative approaches to tackling period poverty after studying 14 different period poverty education initiatives. They identified three main themes: “distribution with dignity, combining products with education, and responsive menstruation education.”
In Scotland, the issue of period poverty has made it to the Scottish Parliament, where a law that was introduced earlier this year that, if passed, will make period products free to anyone who needs them. In more developing countries, the United Nations People Fund has identified period poverty as a serious problem. As a result, they’re providing period products to those in need, as well as education on menstrual health, and are supporting national health systems where they can help to provide treatment for menstrual disorders.
What is the lifetime cost of period care?
While period care products may not seem exorbitantly expensive, when we consider that a person who menstruates has their period approximately every month from young adolescence until menopause, that can add up pretty quickly. In fact, it is estimated that Canadian women spend up to $6,000 in their lifetime on menstrual hygiene products, and women in rural communities can pay double the price for the same products found in larger centres. If you are fortunate to live a financially stable life, that may not sound like a significant amount of money; however, for those who are not financially stable or are living in poverty, that money could be the difference between having a roof over their heads or dinner on their plates.
Why can’t everyone use reusable period products?
If you’re reading this and thinking “okay, but there are reusable products now that you only have to purchase one time, you’ll save money.” We hear you. Reusable period care products can be a wonderful solution to those who can use them, but we must also consider that they are not always fully accessible for people either.
High upfront costs: Reusable period care products usually come with a high upfront cost that make them cost prohibitive to those already struggling financially, even if it will save them money in the long run. For example, a menstrual cup at a cost of $30-$50 could mean food on the table for two weeks for someone who’s living paycheck to paycheck.
Limited or no access to wash reusable period products: Also, individuals who experience homelessness or live without shelter may not have the ability or resources to wash their reusable products, such as menstrual cups or period underwear. Reusable products may not provide the flexibility needed that pads or tampons do, and leaving period underwear on or a menstrual cup in for too long could lead to irritation, leakage, discomfort, or even health risks.
Bodily agency: Another important piece to this is bodily agency. Period care products are an immensely personal choice and everyone deserves to be able to choose what’s right for them. Invasive products, such as period cups or tampons, may be inaccessible to those with mobility issues or may be triggering for people who have experienced sexual assault.
Non-invasive products like pads or period underwear might be uncomfortable for people with sensitive skin or sensory issues. Having bodily agency means being able to choose what’s right for you, because if a menstruator cannot or does not want to use a certain type of period product, be it reusable or disposable, they should be able to make that choice, as they alone know what’s best for their body and lifestyle.
What will it take to end period poverty in Canada?
Period poverty is a complex issue and there is no one easy solution. Here at joni, we believe in #progressnotperfection, so what will progress look like?
Destigmatize menstruation: First, we must destigmatize menstruation! To end period poverty in the long run, we need to be able to talk about it without shame and make sure everyone is educated on even the most basic elements of menstrual health whether they have periods or not. With more education and the sharing of knowledge in classrooms, online spaces, and art, for example, will come the destigmatizing of period poverty itself.
Government action: People who live in period poverty should not live in shame. While we will keep working towards providing as many pad donations as we can and providing menstruation education, this is a larger health issue. Ultimately, period poverty is something that the government needs to take seriously and acknowledge as a basic health and well-being issue for Canadians.
More positions of power for those who menstruate: This acknowledgement can only come from making sure we don’t keep quiet about period poverty and make our voices heard; however, it’s also important to fight for more people who menstruate in positions of power. With more menstruators in government and other places of important decision making, creating change and using their lived-experiences to drive them, menstrual health cannot be ignored. Eventually, perhaps, period products will become equally affordable, accessible, and even free for all Canadians, no matter their location or socio-economic status.
What can I do to end period poverty in my community?
People who menstruate do not have a choice in the matter, so they shouldn’t have to choose between period products and other aspects of life. Being unable to access menstrual hygiene products can affect your life in many different ways, which is why menstrual hygiene products should be considered essential.
Want to join us in fighting for period equity but don’t know where to start?
There are lots of different ways to take action! If you have the means, you can donate menstrual products or money to organizations like The Period Purse or Period Promise, as well as your local food banks or shelters.
Plus, supporting companies like joni with our one-for-one model means that when you buy your own period products, you’re also providing period products to those in need.
But fighting period poverty doesn’t have to cost you money. Take the time to write to your representatives and inform them that this is a cause you care about. Volunteer for period product drives or for organizations that help those living in period poverty. Most importantly, bring awareness to the cause and talk about it, whether that’s online or in person, because #knowledgeispower.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristy Frenken-Francis is joni’s social media manager through a FLIK apprenticeship. She is a queer, Métis woman from the greater Vancouver area and is passionate about decolonization, queer liberation, and intersectional feminism. Kristy is currently finishing her MA thesis in English literature at uOttawa, and believes deeply in the power of words and stories as drivers of social change.