Period poverty increasing isolation and mental health issues, study shows

B.C. report describes people struggling to afford and even access menstrual products
Photo: B.C. announced in 2019 that all public schools would provide free menstrual products for students. Sussanne Skidmore pictured at podium. Photo by Province of British Columbia.
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Period poverty remains a serious problem in Canada, with new research from B.C. pointing to the magnitude of the issue.

Based on the largest study of its kind in the province, the report released today says 51 per cent of survey respondents have struggled to afford menstrual products for themselves.

“Having the fear of bleeding through your pants and not being able to participate severely impacts my mental health,” reads one of the report’s testimonies.

“As I am already a person with a disability and living on a budget having to save money for these supplies is very cost consuming.”

Among the most affected groups are Indigenous people and disabled people. In particular, close to 70 per cent of Indigenous respondents said they have faced challenges, compared to less than 50 per cent of non-Indigenous respondents. Around 80 per cent of mentally or physically disabled respondents said they have had trouble buying menstrual products — almost double the rate of their non-disabled counterparts.

And because of the stigma around menstruation, the lack of access to period products hinders participation in society: 18 per cent of respondents have missed school, 22 per cent have missed work and 29 per cent have missed community events because of this issue.

The United Way Period Promise Research Project

A collaborative project established in 2019 between the United Way and the provincial government, the research documents broad difficulties in accessing and being able to afford period products for people who menstruate. It also underlines the importance of community organizations, which have long led the work around period poverty in B.C. and across Canada, in facilitating this access.

The project has two streams. Because many who experience period poverty access products through community organizations, the project supplied products to 12 community organizations for one year to study their clients’ usage rates. It also ran a public survey in two phases that received 1,654 total responses.

Momentum building

The report’s release follows growing momentum behind government actions on period poverty. In 2015, Canada removed the GST from menstrual products. In 2019, B.C. became Canada’s first province to require public schools to provide free period products in all bathrooms for students. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have since followed suit.

Following the 2020 election in B.C., the province’s minister of social development and poverty reduction, Nicholas Simons, was mandated to create a multi-sectoral Period Poverty Task Force. Simons said in a statement to Ricochet that he will be able share more information about the task force’s terms of reference and composition “in the next few months.”

“It's a huge issue and COVID has just made it more complicated.”

City councils and school boards around the country are also tackling the issue.

Yet, the challenge of period poverty has grown — particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout and accompanying stress on support services over the past year.

“The need became greater actually than what it was before,” said Sussanne Skidmore, the United Way’s Period Promise campaign co-chair.

“People losing their jobs, being out of work, not having access to the same level of funds grew the scope of people who are actually requiring services and products,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see, as we move through the next couple years and the recovery from COVID, who's getting left behind still and who has greater need for access to food and hygiene. It's a huge issue, and COVID has just made it more complicated.”

Skidmore also pointed out that period poverty is rooted in stigma around menstruation, which remains sticky despite policy changes.

“Talking about it, in a way, that is taboo — that still exists,” she said. “But it should be treated the same as toilet paper, and it should be free, and you should have access to it.”

The United Way Period Promise Research Project

‘Having it really be ours’

Governments are not the only forces addressing the issue.

Even with reduced operations because of COVID-19, many community organizations remain a critical part of addressing period poverty due to “their relationships with clients, expertise on particular issues in their community, [as well as] services, programs, outreach, and visibility in community,” the report finds.

Small, community-based initiatives are also popping up to fill gaps.

Kelly Chessman, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, set up a period pantry with reusable and disposable period products last month in Vancouver. It is located between Commercial Drive and Victoria Drive, an area with residents diverse in income and background.

Partly inspired by community fridges and period pantries that sprung up during the pandemic across Canada and the U.S., she said the pantry follows a mutual aid model where it relies on community donations and is open to all community members. Besides offering products, this means amplifying inclusive language to support not just cis women but also trans and non-binary people who menstruate, while banning the policing of access to the pantry.

She also views the project as a “form of public art” to start conversations and break the stigma.

“I see it being sustained through conversations about why this is existing,” Chessman said.

“It gets the mind going as to the larger issues at hand, which is part of the intention behind this. And I really want it to be sustained by community members dropping products off, taking products, continuing to have conversations, keeping it tidy, having it really being ours.”

‘Not just about the products’

Another aspect of the issue receiving growing attention is reusable period products.

While the report focuses on disposable products, it recommends further research on the impact of providing reusable products to those experiencing period poverty. It adds that current responses point toward appreciation for reusable alternatives because they create “a better sense of preparedness and control.”

“This is just the first of more to come, of research that is needed in this area.”

On the ground, Chessman also sees interest in reusable products. Among the mix of products in her period pantry, she said the Diva Cup was the first to go and that soon there will be a donation of Nixit menstrual discs.

Additionally, single-use products like pads and tampons and their packaging have been shown to produce a huge amount of plastic waste. In particular, North American landfills receive 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators each year. Their production also has a major ecological impact. A year’s worth of disposable products creates a much higher carbon footprint than do reusable products.

But the shift to reusable products is not straightforward.

Besides their higher upfront cost compared to disposable products, some forms of reusable products could pose challenges for physically disabled people. Reusable product usage also depends on individuals being able to access clean running water to wash the products, which is not always available to those who are housing insecure.

It’s “not just about the products, but the access,” Skidmore said. “It’s not like you can change out a reusable product in a porta-potty.”

‘First of more to come’

Ultimately, organizers say more needs to be done to address period poverty in B.C.

Chessman noted that there needs to be more holistic education around menstruation and period products to combat the stigma. “I didn't know how to use a lot of products until I was much older, so education and the policy change as well — I think those go hand in hand,” she said.

And despite its scale, the United Way study acknowledges that it still does not provide a province-wide look at the issue because the respondents’ demographics are “out of line” with the province’s population. And not all data points come from a random sampling.

Skidmore also pointed out that there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to research into the health of women, trans and non-binary people.

“This is just the first of more to come, of research that is needed in this area,” she said.

For Skidmore, these considerations are important to help move from a solely charity-based model towards an advocacy and universal access model. She also highlighted policy changes from places like Scotland, which made menstrual products free last year.

“It may be great if we didn’t have to do the charity model on this, but there’s still such a great need,” she said.

“One of the biggest things is going to be looking at the research and then looking internationally … and applying [a] British Columbian lens to it. How can we do that here in B.C. and continue to move the dial? The end goal for me is eradicating period poverty.”

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