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Students at British Columbia public schools will have access to free menstrual products by the end of the year.

Education Minister Rob Fleming issued an order Friday that requires the schools to provide the products in washrooms with the province providing $300,000 to cover startup costs for school districts as well as supplying ongoing funding for the program.

The provincewide program is the first of its kind in Canada and comes after school board trustees in New Westminster, B.C., voted in February to provide free feminine hygiene products in washrooms.

Fleming said the program is long overdue in schools.

“Quite frankly, the provision of menstrual products in our school system is something that should have been just a basic that was covered and included a long time ago, but as of today it is and I’m very, very pleased to be able to say that,” Fleming told a news conference attended by teachers, students, administrators and social service groups, including the United Way.

He said research indicates one in seven students has missed classes because of being unable to afford menstrual products. Providing equal access to menstrual products in schools helps create better learning environments and ensures students don’t miss classes, sports or extracurricular activities, he said.

“They miss out on learning time,” Fleming said. “They miss out on the opportunity that other students have to do well in school. With this step we’re making sure that all students get the most from school each and everyday and are able to enjoy school.”

The government also announced a one-time grant of $95,000 to support the United Way’s Period Promise Research Project to help 10 non-profit agencies provide menstrual products for vulnerable people.

Rebecca Ballard, a Grade 11 student at New Westminster Secondary School, said the free products will go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable about menstruation.

“I believe the decision to provide this free service also symbolizes progression towards eliminating the taboo nature of menstruation,” she said at the news conference. “This is something all young women go through and should never feel badly about or ashamed.”

A Toronto city council committee voted last month to boost its shelter, support and housing budget by more than $222,000 to buy menstrual products and dispensers for city-run homeless shelters, drop-in and respite centres, as well as some neighbourhood community centres.

A Halifax-area pharmacy started offering free feminine hygiene products to customers this week. Store manager Cassidy Bellefontaine said customers at Highfield Park Pharmachoice can speak discreetly with a pharmacist to access the donation bin at the pharmacy.

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