A few years ago, Tait Gamble walked into the washroom at St. Clement’s School, the all-girls private school she attended in Toronto, and a light bulb went off. Where were the pads and tampons? Why didn’t the school provide them for free?
After all, the girls weren’t expected to provide their own toilet paper, soap or hand towels. So why did equally vital menstrual products get a pass?
Gamble had been learning about equity in one of her social justice courses, and she was suddenly noticing discrimination and inequality all around her. So it wasn’t surprising when another related question hit her: What did people experiencing homelessness do when they got their periods?
After some research, Gamble discovered The Period Purse, Canada’s first registered charity dedicated to menstrual equity. The organization, based in Toronto, fills donated purses with toiletries and menstrual products before dropping them off at homeless shelters across the city.
Soon, Gamble was organizing pad-and-tampon drives and convincing her neighbours and classmates to attend “packing parties,” where they created period packs complete with handwritten notes of encouragement. She formed a group of around 20 engaged schoolmates – dubbed Menstruation Nation – which went on to organize a packing party at the school.
“Twenty doesn’t sound like a lot,” Gamble says. “But our graduating class was 60 girls. A third of our class was excited about it.”
Now a second-year student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Gamble’s passion for menstrual justice is still going strong. In fact, she partnered with The Period Purse to launch Menstruation Nation, a school initiative that borrowed the name of the group she started with her friends.
Now, Menstruation Nation exists to help other schools reduce the stigma around menstrual health and run product-gathering blitzes for their own packing parties. Gamble even wrote a handbook to help student leaders at other schools get started.
Gamble and St. Clement’s, which now keeps washrooms stocked with pads and tampons, seem to have been ahead of the curve, as awareness around “period poverty” is on the rise. Meghan Markle made headlines when she spoke about it at an International Women’s Day event in May, 2018. And Netflix film Period. End of Sentence, a documentary about how period poverty inhibits girls’ ability to attend school in developing nations, won the Oscar for best documentary short in 2019.
But period poverty is a pervasive issue in Canada too. A 2018 survey from Plan Canada International revealed that nearly one-quarter (23 per cent) of Canadian women said they struggled to pay for menstrual products. Seventy per cent of women under 25 said they’ve missed school, work or social activities because of their period. Northern and remote communities, where a box of tampons can sell for more than twice than what it would cost in a city, are hit particularly hard.
In Feb. 2019, the New Westminster school district in B.C. passed a motion to provide free menstrual products in all schools. Just two months later, the provincial government issued an order for all B.C. public schools to do the same by the end of 2019. In Ontario, the Waterloo Region school district will also stock its washrooms for the 2019-2020 school year, following in the footsteps of London, Ont., which has done the same in all city-owned, publicly accessible buildings.
Providing free pads and tampons for students is just one step toward solving period poverty, says Jana Girdauskas, founder of The Period Purse. However, there remains real work to be done to end the stigma around menstruation so that complementary period products become commonplace.
“(Menstruation) is normal. Half of us in the world do it and none of us would be here without it. It’s a normal part of health and we should be positive about it,” Girdauskas says. The organization hopes to spread this message through its new period presentations for Ontario students in Grades 5 through 8.
It’s also a message Nicole Bryant, a guidance counsellor at St. Clement’s and staff liaison for Menstruation Nation, is passionate about. Bryant has an assortment of reusable menstrual cups on full display in her office, available for students’ taking. During the spring, 2019 semester, Bryant brought in a speaker to talk to the students about reusable products and assist them in creating a video about menstrual health to mark Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28.
“It was quite surprising that even at an all-girls school like St. Clement’s there was still a taboo around menstruation. So part of the video wasn’t just about raising awareness, but telling students that it’s okay to talk about their periods,” she says.
The message is getting through even to the youngest grades. Gamble tells the story of a tiny Grade 1 student who happened to peer into the school’s donation bin right after it had been emptied. “There’s no tampons!” she announced.
“She was so alarmed that no one had donated,” says Gamble, who plans to start period product drives at her university residence this year. “I just love that little kids are getting into it. There’s awareness and pride. Girls are just completely challenging the stigma.”