Padding the path to menstrual equity

Menstruating individuals spend an average of 2,535 days — nearly seven years — of their life on their period, and Canadians will expend up to $6,000 over the course of that time on menstrual products.

The push for menstrual equity, which refers to the provision of equal access to period products and furthering the improvement of reproductive education, has become a notable global movement over the past few years.

With internet figures like Rupi Kaur, the popular poet and author of Milk and Honey, posting photos of period blood lightly staining her pants and bed sheet (which wasn’t even real blood) on social media in 2015, only to have them removed from Instagram for not following their “Community Guidelines,” the conversation surrounding the stigmatization of menstruation has only increased.

Kaur responded to the removal of these photos and the backlash she received by stating that she wished to “demystify the period and make something that is innate ‘normal’ again.”

Period poverty and menstrual inequality heavily impact the demographics of people who are living below the poverty line and require social assistance, experiencing homelessness or in prison, for example, with increased pressure being placed on providing access to these products for free in schools and other public institutions.

In 2015, the Canadian government recognized sanitary products as essential items, federally lifting the heavily criticized “tampon tax.”

However, the cost of these items — which are a basic necessity — is still high, making it difficult or impossible for some marginalized groups to afford them.

The historical consciousness regarding menstruation has been overwhelmingly damaging, problematic and uninformed — creating misconceptions, taboos and ostracizations directed towards menstruating individuals.

Advertising methods for menstrual products have been limited at best, with the now ubiquitous “blue liquid” being used to represent period blood on the products that these companies are attempting to successfully sell to consumers who just want to get through their “time of the month.”

This sterile (the blue colour was deemed inoffensive, similar to cleaning products and was disconnected from any natural bodily fluid) and unprogressive approach isn’t surprising given that it’s still being utilized in advertising today, and the word “period” was only said for the first time on television by Courtney Cox in a Tampax commercial in 1985.

With media becoming increasingly focused on public perceptions and representations of periods and the arguments surrounding inclusivity and improved menstrual care accessibility, there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done in order to bridge the gaps that still exist in reproductive health knowledge and to address the distinct lack in proper product access.

On an international scale, while many countries are still slow to develop more equitable menstrual strategies, Scotland is working towards becoming the first nation to provide free tampons and pads to those who menstruate.

Locally, a menstrual products pilot launched at city facilities in Kitchener, includes free pads and tampons that are available in the women’s washrooms for the next six months at The Aud, Chandler-Mowat Community Centre, Victoria Hills Community Centre, Breithaupt Centre, Lyle Hallman Pool, Activa Sportsplex and Kitchener City Hall.

As well, the Kitchener Public Library’s central branch location offers free menstrual products in their washrooms and hopes to expand this service to their other locations.

At Laurier, the month of March will be dedicated to a campaign for menstrual equity, in partnership with LSPRIG, the Students’ Union, the Sustainability Office, the GSA, CSEDI, the Indigenous Student Centre, SHORE Centre and more.

Brooke Dietrich, a masters student and sustainability assistant at the Laurier Sustainability office, is passionate about advocating for menstrual equity.

“Menstrual equity and this entire ‘Menstrual March’ came out of this need to break down the stigma around menstruation. That encapsulates a lot of different areas. So, sustainable menstruation, using alternative menstrual products such as reusable pads, menstrual cups, menstrual underwear, things like that,” Dietrich said.

“It also encapsulates menstrual equity, making sure everyone has access to those products. Sometimes, folks aren’t able to afford menstrual products like sustainable or reusable ones, so making sure that even the most basic products are available for everybody.”

An important aspect regarding these initiatives will be centred on effective education and deconstructing the unfortunately common belief that cisgender women are the only people who menstruate.

“Another part is breaking down the stigma of who menstruates because not everybody who menstruates is a woman, and not all women menstruate. So, that includes trans men and non-binary folks and it’s important to break down the stigma to allow for a better flow of conversation so everyone feels like they have a seat at the table when it comes to health and wellness,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich was the recipient of a grant that will enable her to host an informative session which also provides a free period product to each attendee.

“Myself [and colleagues] applied for and received funding to do a sustainable menstruation workshop, which will be happening at the end of the month. That will be where we partner with Diva Cup and a couple of other local organizations like SHORE Centre who educate people on periods and talk about all of the things mentioned before and actually walk away with a product of their choosing. That’s actually happening on the Waterloo and Brantford campuses for over 150 students,” Dietrich said.

Part of the immeasurable value in hosting campus events like this is spreading awareness about the limitations that currently exist for menstruating students on campus who may not be able to have regular access to the products that they need.

“We did a survey last summer and the percentage of students who don’t have access to products, have been on campus without products or can’t afford them, is ridiculously high and the numbers are even greater in trans and non-binary folks,” Dietrich said.

“Having access to menstrual products is not a privilege in any way shape or form, it’s a right. Making sure that anyone who menstruates on campus has access to the products they need is essential — just as essential as toilet paper. So we’re really working to make sure that we are giving access [to menstrual products] to students who require them.”

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