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Menstrual Products are Bloody Expensive: Period Poverty in Canada

June 24 2019 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her), Graphics by Sissi Chen (She/Her)

From monthly rent to weekly groceries, budgeting life’s long list of expenses can be a daunting task, and those who menstruate face an additional cost: menstrual products. 

Since the late 1800s, various period-related products have promised to help women tackle the unmentionable task of menstrual hygiene. Considering the average menstruator does so for approximately 40 years, it is safe to say that the feminine-hygiene industry has had no shortage of customers throughout history. Throughout one’s life, the average menstruator will spend approximately $6,000 on period products. While the cost of these products may seem marginal for some, those who are already suffering significant financial hardship often struggle to afford necessary items like tampons or pads. This begs the question: what does menstruation look like for those who are struggling financially? To answer this, the Marlow team has decided to explore the topic of period poverty, its effects, and highlight current steps being taken in order to spark change.

While it may seem obvious that period products are essential items, it was only five short years ago that this was codified in our tax system. The taxing of menstrual products – commonly known as the “tampon tax” – endured in Canada for over 20 years. Tampons, pads, and other period-related products were considered luxury items, thus justifying the government’s decision to charge GST on every box sold. Until recently, this example of gender discrimination continued; each year generating $36 million for the federal government, the tampon tax therefore imposed financial hardship only on those requiring menstrual products. In July of 2015, through the dedicated work of non-profit group Canadian Menstruators and NDP MP Irene Mathyssen, taxes on menstrual products were officially removed, thereby eliminating a significant financial burden for many menstruators.

Abolishing the “tampon tax” helped make menstrual products slightly more accessible for Canadians. However, research suggests that there is still much more work to be done; a 2019 poll conducted by Plan International Canada found that one third of Canadian women sometimes sacrifice other items in their budget in order to prioritize menstrual hygiene. In more severe cases, budget sacrifices aren’t sufficient to access period products at all. According to Sistering – a Toronto-based drop-in centre for homeless women – dealing with your period on the street often means sourcing unconventional materials like cotton balls, newspapers and socks each month in order to craft makeshift pads and tampons. Not only are these homemade remedies much less effective in terms of mess-prevention, they can also be extremely unsafe potentially causing irritation and infection. Aside from the fact that these products are likely to cause physical complications, by denying individuals the ability to properly care for themselves during a natural bodily function, it also affects one’s sense of dignity. 

At Marlow, we believe there is an undeniable need for improved access to menstrual products. Thankfully, recent years have seen a number of organizations and initiatives rising to the challenge of providing these products to Canadians in need.

  • The Period Purse – a non-profit organization run by Torontonian Jana Girdauskas – provides marginalized Canadians with free menstrual products in hopes of achieving menstrual equity. Through public education and advocacy, they work to reduce period stigma and strive to help people in the community experience healthy periods. A donation of $12 can provide a community member with a month’s worth of menstrual products. 

  • Halima Al-Hatimy – founder of FemCare Community Health Initiative in Hamilton, Ontario – is also working to shatter period stigma and better the lives of people who menstruate in her community. By providing sanitary products to Hamilton’s city-run shelters and drop-in centres, this organization aims to reclaim menstruation, and give those who menstruate the opportunity to prioritize their mental and reproductive health.

  • Student leaders in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Halifax have all been pushing the agenda of the menstrual equity movement, demanding that menstrual products be distributed on campus. In 2018, Centennial College’s “Free the Tampon” movement put this idea into practice, allowing students to access sanitary products in campus bathrooms, free of charge. This project has since sparked conversation among other institutions and as students continue to demand inclusion and equity, our hope is that more campuses across the country will implement similar policies.

While there has been some progress in terms of combating period poverty, it is clear there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. In the fight to improve universal access to menstrual products, one fact must not be forgotten: menstrual products are essential and menstruation is not a choice. In order to spark real change, we must voice the need for freely accessible menstrual products not only within our own communities, but in the world at large.

If you would like to donate, or volunteer with some of the organizations mentioned, they are linked above. If you know of any other fantastic organizations and individuals combating period poverty, please comment and share them below!