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Missing class or extracurriculars because of unexpected periods can set students back – and while Canada lags other countries in stocking schools with tampons and pads, places such as B.C. and Ontario are trying to catch up

Mackenzie Planinsic, Katharine Galloway and Makena Thomas are Grade 12 students at New Westminster Secondary School in B.C., where there are now free dispensers for pads and tampons.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Before the free pad and tampon dispensers appeared in their high-school bathrooms, Katharine Galloway, Makena Thomas and Mackenzie Planinsic remember well the anxiety of getting an unanticipated menstrual period at school.

“Before, you would sit in class and worry: ‘Am I going to have enough tampons to get through the day?’ ” said Ms. Galloway, a 17-year-old student in Grade 12 at New Westminster Secondary School in British Columbia. “When you forgot a tampon and nobody else had one, you had to use toilet paper, which caused a lot of distraction and discomfort. Toilet paper isn’t absorbent – at all,” said Ms. Planinsic, 17, recalling the day a friend drove her home to change after a period emergency.

Worrying about a leak, hoping for discretion while searching for emergency supplies, battling ancient tampon dispensers that swallow change: These are irksome school-time memories for anyone who menstruates. But the problem goes further than embarrassment, to gender discrepancies that linger around basic hygiene. While school bathrooms supply toilet paper, most are not stocked with menstrual products. This means students who get a period during a school day and don’t have pad or a tampon are on their own – missing class time to seek out supplies from friends, teachers or administrators who might keep a stash in their desks or behind a counter in the main office.

In a bid to give students access to menstrual products where and when they need them, a growing number of provincial governments are working to make pads and tampons freely available through schools. The goal is to prevent students from missing class, sports and extracurricular activities, or losing focus if they get their period unexpectedly during a school day and don’t have a pad or tampon at the ready. More broadly, the aim is to advance dignity around menstruation and do away with outmoded thinking about this bodily function: The idea is that sanitary products are basic hygienic necessities, not luxuries.

Last month, Ontario launched a corporate-funded program that will see Shoppers Drug Mart donate 18 million pads to public high schools over the next three years; school boards will distribute the pads beginning late this fall. In 2019, British Columbia publicly funded tampons and pads for students in elementary, middle and high schools. Nova Scotia made menstrual products free for public-school students in Grade 4 and higher in September, 2019, while Prince Edward Island promised free products at junior and senior high schools and postsecondary institutions in November, 2020. Last Friday, the federal government pledged to provide free menstrual supplies to all students of on-reserve First Nations schools across the country in the coming weeks.

With so many of the programs in their infancy – and with schools shuttered for months in the pandemic – data measuring their impact on attendance and engagement is still lacking. But students have been vocal that this has bettered their day-to-day experiences in class.

“The feedback we’ve heard about how the quality of life in schools is changing for some of our students is really enough for us,” said Gurveen Dhaliwal, chair of the New Westminster board of education, the first in B.C. to launch such efforts in February, 2019, ahead of an April, 2019, ministerial order requiring all of the province’s public schools to follow suit.

“For us, this change wasn’t about measuring the level of impact and weighing it against cost. It was about fixing a basic inequity in our system. The full hygiene needs of half our population were not being equally served. They are now,” Ms. Dhaliwal said.

By September, 2019, her board had installed coin-free dispensers filled with tampons and pads in women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms throughout elementary, middle and high schools, at a cost of $10,000 for the start of the 2019 school year.

Ms. Planinsic called the freely available products a relief. “The anxiety and awkwardness have been taken away,” Ms. Galloway said. “It’s important that the schools provide this,” Ms. Thomas, 17, added. “At this age, we are figuring it out still. There are a lot of people who don’t talk about this with their families or understand exactly what they need to buy and do.”

Students walk between classes at New Westminster Secondary. The school board launched B.C.'s first free menstural-products program, which aims to stop students from having to miss class or extracurricular activities due to period-related discomfort.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The issue is significantly more urgent for those who can’t regularly afford these products – a problem known as “period poverty.” A third of young women said they often struggle to afford menstrual supplies, according to a 2018 study of 2,000 respondents from Plan International Canada, a national charity focused on gender equality. Some 81 per cent of women under the age of 25 said they had experienced a leak at school or at work, with 86 per cent saying they have felt unprepared when their period started.

Even as more provinces acknowledge the concept of period poverty, Canada remains behind other governments in this realm. The city of New York passed legislation in 2016 giving students access to free tampons and pads. In 2017, California required low-income high schools to offer free period products, widening the measure to all public schools with Grades 6 to 12 and colleges last month. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that every school in the country would be stocked with free supplies as of this past June.

Scotland leads the way. After moving to make menstrual products free at schools, colleges and universities in 2018, the country became the first to offer free supplies to anyone who needs them last November, with products available in public spaces, including libraries, community centres and town halls.

“It’s a sign of a progressive society where we recognize menstruation as a normal part of life. We don’t talk about it in whispers,” said Monica Lennon, a lawmaker in the Scottish parliament who spearheaded the legislation. “You can have your period, get on with your day and fully participate in your education and at your workplace. It’s not going to hold you back.”

During the pandemic, local authorities delivered free menstrual supplies to homes and student residences where people needed them. Postsecondary students who can’t afford the products are also allowed to take extra from school when they go home for the holidays. Scotland extends the free products to the parents and caregivers of those who use them.

“The scheme is available and accessible so that the person doesn’t have to divulge personal information, prove their income or say how many products they need,” Ms. Lennon said.

PERIOD POVERTY IN CANADA:

A SNAPSHOT

Percentage of respondents who have answered ‘yes’ when asked whether they experienced any of the following scenarios

Respondents under 25 years old

Total respondents

Felt your period ever prevented you from full participation in an activity

Missed work or school, or declined social activities because of your period

83%

70%

68%

55%

Had a period leak at work or school

Have struggled to afford menstrual products for yourself or dependents

81%

74%

33%

23%

Note: Survey was conducted from Feb. 16 –23, 2018 with 2,000 women, 208 of them under the age of 25.

SOURCE: HILL+KNOWLTON STRATEGIES,

PLAN INTERNATIONAL CANADA

PERIOD POVERTY IN CANADA: A SNAPSHOT

Percentage of respondents who have answered ‘yes’ when asked whether they experienced any of the following scenarios

Total respondents

Respondents under 25 years old

Felt your period ever prevented you from full participation in an activity

Missed work or school, or declined social activities because of your period

83%

70%

68%

55%

Had a period leak at work or school

Have struggled to afford menstrual products for yourself or dependents

81%

74%

33%

23%

Note: Survey was conducted from Feb. 16 –23, 2018 with 2,000 women, 208 of them under the age of 25.

SOURCE: HILL+KNOWLTON STRATEGIES,

PLAN INTERNATIONAL CANADA

PERIOD POVERTY IN CANADA: A SNAPSHOT

Percentage of respondents who have answered ‘yes’ when asked whether they experienced any of the following scenarios

Total respondents

Respondents under 25 years old

Felt your period ever prevented you from full participation in an activity

Missed work or school, or declined social activities because of your period

83%

70%

68%

55%

Have struggled to afford menstrual products for yourself or dependents

Had a period leak at work or school

81%

74%

33%

23%

Note: Survey was conducted from Feb. 16 –23, 2018 with 2,000 women, 208 of them under the age of 25.

SOURCE: HILL+KNOWLTON STRATEGIES, PLAN INTERNATIONAL CANADA

Both in Scotland and closer to home, menstrual advocates say they’ve faced questioning about the public cost of offering free period products.

The B.C. government gave 60 school districts $300,000 in startup funding to make pads and tampons available in 2019; going forward, school districts will be responsible for the cost. In PEI, junior and senior high schools’ operational budgets will cover the products, with the province’s Interministerial Women’s Secretariat kicking in an additional $15,000 annually to supply post-secondary institutions, three women’s shelters and the PEI food bank association. In Nova Scotia, regional school boards will pull from their budgets to pay for sanitary products at 367 schools.

When critics balk at public funds being spent on pads and tampons, menstrual advocates respond that such scrutiny is rarely applied to other hygienic items freely and copiously available in washrooms. “Nobody thinks about it when it’s hand soap, or paper towel, or fancy hand dryers,” said B.C. student Ms. Galloway.

Kevin Hiebert, co-founder of Changing the Flow, a national organization focused on menstrual equity, likes to draw an analogy to toilet paper.

“Asking kids to come to school with their own toilet paper in order to be educated would be an undignified thing to propose, yet we’re effectively proposing that to people who menstruate,” said Mr. Hiebert, who consults with his 15- and 17-year-old daughters on this issue.

“Imagine if you had to go to a secretary or the office to get some toilet paper. That’s how absurd this stuff is.”

Various menstrual products are shown in Kennesaw, Ga., in 2019.Mike Stewart/The Associated Press

Years before the four provinces mandated free sanitary products at schools, numerous boards were dipping into their budgets to fund tampons and pads for students who needed the help. Long before that, students were providing for each other.

Bleed the North is a youth-led charity that has delivered more than 50,000 donated period products to people in need in Ontario. While most deliveries go to shelters, the organization has also put together brown paper bags of pads, tampons and menstrual cups for individuals who reach out to them by e-mail. That includes teenagers, according to Kate Goelman, a volunteer with the organization.

“Schools need to step up their game, especially for people who can’t access products. It’s important this doesn’t stand in the way of someone’s education,” said Ms. Goelman, a 16-year-old whose Toronto high-school bathroom is not currently equipped with menstrual supplies.

“The shame feeds back into the period poverty: People aren’t always able to ask for help because of the internalized shame they feel about it.”

When Maya Larrondo was in Grade 12 at Toronto’s Western Technical-Commercial School – a place she describes as predominantly male – she took charge of a “period locker” a graduating student had set up. She set up Instagram polls, asking students what they wanted stocked inside.

With help from her parents and friends, Ms. Larrondo filled the locker with menstrual products, pain medication, chocolate and extra clothes from a local Value Village.

Maya Larrondo of Toronto, now a university student, helped stock a 'period locker' at her old high school.Tijana Martin/ The Globe and Mail

Ms. Larrondo, now 19 and studying forensic anthropology at the University of Toronto, eventually connected with Marit Stiles, a Toronto MPP and official opposition education critic who pushed for free menstrual products at Ontario schools for years.

Ms. Stiles sees room for improvement in the province’s new program. It is a limited-time, corporate partnership – a departure from other provincial programs, which are publicly funded. The MPP and advocacy groups such as The Period Purse, a national charity centred on period poverty and menstrual education, also questioned why the Ontario initiative left out elementary and middle-school students, who get periods, too, and are often unsure around their cycles.

Also excluded from many programs are postsecondary students, many of whom are living on tight budgets away from home for the first time, on sprawling campuses where dorms may be far from lecture halls.

“Last month, I was in class and mid-discussion, I sensed an emergency coming. I had to run all the way to my room and back to class. It’s not a good look to leave mid-conversation during class time but I had to,” said Haby Ka, a fourth-year political philosophy student at Quest University in Squamish, B.C.

“In a way, there is more shame as an adult when you have to ask someone for a product. You feel like you should have planned or known better, rather than exposing yourself like that,” said Ms. Ka, who is women’s representative at the British Columbia Federation of Students.

Melissa Chirino, the federation’s chairperson and a fourth-year psychology student at Vancouver’s Douglas College, has seen students miss class to race off school grounds to find emergency supplies. Her school is now launching a pilot project to make these products freely available in bathrooms. Currently, the student union office reserves a small stockpile for those who need them.

Indigenous students in isolated regions face the most pressing shortage. There, pads and tampons can be prohibitively expensive.

“The need is much higher in northern communities,” said Veronica Brown, Ontario chapter founder of Moon Time Sisters, a non-profit organization that ships donated menstrual products to schools, women’s shelters and health care centres in remote Indigenous communities across Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

If a pharmacy carrying sanitary products is hours away, “that might not be a priority” for families, said Tania Cameron, a Moon Time Sisters volunteer who co-ordinates shipments of pads, tampons and menstrual cups to high schools at predominantly fly-in communities in northwestern Ontario.

Growing up in Winnipeg as one of three sisters, Ms. Cameron remembers her mother sewing pads out of fabric to get by when they ran short on supplies.

“If you’ve ever experienced the need where you truly can’t afford a product and you’re trying to go to school, that’s a horrible feeling,” Ms. Cameron said. “You feel poor, you feel lousy, you feel shame.”

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