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Period poverty: The physical and financial struggle

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Menstruation can be an uncomfortable and painful week for many. 

For others, it’s also a financial struggle due to the high cost of menstrual products. 

Period poverty refers to the lack of access to menstrual products due to monetary or geographical reasons. More than one in three Canadian women have reported sacrificing something in their budget to afford sanitary products.

To bring awareness to the issue, a number of organizations in Ontario are dedicated to making hygiene products more accessible.

Hygiene4her is a London-based organization led by co-presidents Michelle Pham and Helia Hatam Tehrani. Both women are advocates for reducing period poverty.

The organization works to provide people with essential hygiene products such as soap, shampoos and sanitizers. 

The founders said they plan to kick off a “Period Pantry” initiative in select community buildings. 

People can donate period products using a “take what you need, give what you can” system. 

The organization also plans to donate $200 worth of sanitary products to local shelters. 

Pham said, “We are really dedicated to empowering women, starting with personal hygiene. Personal hygiene can be a taboo topic, and this can lead to a lot of feelings like shame, anxiety, and unsafe unhygienic practices, especially with menstruation.”

Photo Courtesy of Arshan Halalkhor

Tehrani and Pham met at Western University. They bonded over their mutual experience of their health and personal hygiene being ignored. 

To provide for their community, Hygiene4Her donates hygiene packs to local shelters. 

The organization works with sponsors like Birch Babe and Unbelts for hygiene products, such as soaps and masks. 

Destigmatizing menstruation

Tehrani first noticed the disregard towards women’s health when growing up in the Middle East. 

Tehrani said she and her peers going through puberty were often neglected and there was a lack of health education.

She said this issue is not limited to the Middle East but is a universal experience. 

“It exists all over the world, not just developing countries. Menstruating women are seen as unclean, dirty and a lot of the time, demanded to refrain from certain activities,” said Tehrani. 

The Hygiene4Her founders said they believe there also needs to be an effort in educating people who don’t menstruate to reduce the stigma around the topic.

“I used to do high school sports, and I would have male teammates laugh at me when I said I was in pain and I couldn’t go full out. It all comes [down] to education. They were never taught much more than ‘women bleed,’” said Pham. 

Tehrani said, “It leads to objectification and abuse in the future when they are not exposed to this type of knowledge to view women as human.”

According to a Plan International Canada survey done in 2019, 29 per cent of men and boys report they are prepared to have conversations about menstruation. 

Photo Courtesy of Arshan Halalkhor

Lack of resources

Pham and Tehrani said Hygiene4Her often doesn’t have products to donate. 

Help A Girl Out founder Yanique Brandford said her not-for-profit also tends to run out of resources. 

The Toronto-based organization aims to educate girls on their menstrual health.

They also donate sanitary products to communities in the Greater Toronto Area and Caribbean countries. 

Brandford’s first experience of period poverty was in Jamaica, where she had to use alternative materials such as plastic, cardboard or paper. 

She became passionate about finding a solution when she learned period poverty was not an issue limited to Jamaica and existed in developed countries like Canada. 

“I went to a bathroom in Toronto, and I saw this homeless lady…with her change cup and thought, ‘Wow, she’s probably going to use that change to buy period products instead of food,'” said Brandford. 

Before Help A Girl Out was registered as a not-for-profit organization in 2018, Brandford would buy sanitary products for people with her own money, putting herself in credit card debt.

“It’s not an issue I just heard about and I sympathized with,” Brandford said.

“I’m a victim, and I’ve been a victim for over 10 years. When you have to use different things on your period, it messes with your mental health, it messes with your self-esteem, so I had a desire to help people.”

Brandford said a community she witnesses to be the most vulnerable is low-income students. 

Photo courtesy of Life Community Project

Political responsibility 

In March 2021, the Toronto Youth Cabinet created a petition calling for the Ontario government to provide free menstrual products to all publicly-funded schools. The petition now has more than 13,800 signatures. 

A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce has previously commented the ministry acknowledges the lack of access to menstrual products “creates significant stress in students’ lives.” 

But so far, the government has not made concrete efforts to improve the situation.

Brandford said she believes the federal government has the financial ability to place free sanitary products in schools but is reluctant to lose this source of income.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry, and women menstruate every single month,” she said. “It’s a moneymaker — I understand that from an economic standpoint — but people are suffering.”

Pham and Tehrani both agree with making products accessible and affordable. 

“There should be regulations on how brands make money off of these products because women’s health should not be this heavily profited off of,” said Tehrani.

Reusable menstrual cups can cost up to $40 per cup. According to Statista, the sale value of tampons reached $110 billion between 2017 and 2018.

Until menstrual products are accessible to all, both organizations will continue to support communities in need.

Brandford said Help A Girl Out is currently looking for volunteers to help sew reusable menstrual products for future community outreach initiatives.

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