Canada New Zealand just made menstrual products free in schools. Where is Ontario on period poverty?
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Growing up, it was clear to Will Hanlon that his mother — a young, single mom — put her kids first.
“Money was always tight, and I know that my mom sacrificed a lot in order to keep my brother and I clothed and fed and healthy,” Hanlon remembers.
One of those sacrifices were menstrual products. Hanlon can’t recall ever seeing them around the house in his youth.
“I know that she sacrificed a lot with her health in order to make sure that we were OK,” he said.
Knowing that this struggle was not unique to women in the GTA, Hanlon started Twelve, an organization that streamlines menstrual product donations for shelters, charities and individuals in need.
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Twelve collects donations from members of the public and fulfills orders for organizations, so that they can tailor the products to their specific needs, and not have to find space for donations that may not be in demand. It also gives users the opportunity to choose.
Hanlon and his partner handle the storage. When he founded the organization in 2019 that meant finding space in every crevice of their 400-square-foot apartment. Their new home has a garage.
Twelve is just one of numerous grassroots, often women-led, Canadian organizations working to tackle period poverty in their communities.
The Period Purse, Period Packs, Bleed the North, Project: Full Stop and the 2019 Period Poverty Summit in Nova Scotia, are just some charities and initiatives that have taken up the issue across the country.
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The challenge of affording things like tampons, pads, menstrual cups, or menstrual panties — which are necessary for people who menstruate — is a global issue and Canada is no exception.
A 2018 Plan International Canada survey found that one third of women under the age of 25 struggled to afford menstrual products. Seventy per cent said they’ve missed school or work or social activities because of their period. In northern communities, a box of tampons can be $15 and pads as much as $25.
Countries around the world have been working to address period poverty.
Scotland became the first country to make menstrual products free out right in early 2020.
In February of this year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that period products would be free in schools for the next three years.
The U.K. is looking to scrap its “tampon tax” once it leaves the EU and India started looking to cap the price on sanitary napkins in 2019.
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Other places have also accounted for menstrual leave — time off separate from sick days to deal with period pain, which for some can be debilitating. These include Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia. In some countries this is either paid or unpaid, and people note that while it is available, some still feel a stigma requesting it.
So, where is Ontario, and the rest of Canada on this issue?
In 2015, Canada removed GST from menstrual products — eliminating a “tampon tax” recognizing that the items are essential.
However, with education and health care regulated provincially, there isn’t much more cohesion with government efforts to address period products.
The conversation about making period products more accessible has risen in a number of provinces, but few have officially made widespread policy changes. Most of the dedicated response to period poverty continues to be ad hoc through local, grassroots organizations.
British Columbia was the first province to move to offer period products for free in schools at the end of 2019. Prince Edward Island did the same in November 2020.
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The United Way of the Lower Mainland’s Period Promise campaign had an impact on B.C.’s change, and the charity earned a grant to continue research. Other United Way branches in Canada are continuing this campaign.
“In Canada, it’s very regionally specific. It’s very, very grassroots,” said Taqdir Kaur Bhandal, the CEO of Mahwari Research Institute, a think tank researching menstrual cycles.
In terms of what more there is to do, Bhandal said she would like to see the government move to offer a rebate to encourage use of sustainable products, like menstrual cups and underwear. She also said product access in the prison system could be greatly improved.
Young advocates are also joining the push to end period poverty.
Isabela Rittinger, 18, founded Bleed the North, a youth organization that both donates products and runs education and advocacy campaigns to help end period poverty.
“I think that the time for change was a while ago, and we need to step up,” the Pickering, Ont. teen said. “I want to challenge Justin Trudeau and his government to match Jacinda Ardern’s leadership on this issue.”
Toronto Youth Council also wants to see Ontario move quicker on offering menstrual products in schools across the province and has created a Change.org petition for the issue.
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Free period products in schools have been announced in a piecemeal way, board by board — Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Limestone District School Board in Kingston, Ont., to name a few.
But the youth behind the petition say it’s time the Ministry of Education made it Ontario-wide.
“I just hope that our (government) can just recognize how much of a human rights issue this is, because these are essential products to those who menstruate,” said Monique Kasonga, a member of Toronto Youth Council who started the petition, along with Stephen Mensah and Vanessa Erhirhie.
For Meghan White, co-founder of Ottawa-based Period Packs, a challenge with seeing change in period poverty is how varied and extensive the barriers can be. But even with the challenge, she said it still is something policymakers need to fix.
“We need intervention from policymakers, because the fact that young people cannot go to school because they’re menstruating — it’s ludicrous. It is unacceptable,” White said.
“What is going on right now is not working for half the people that live in this country, and that feels punitive. That’s not OK.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star
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