In 2018, second-year international development and public policy student Hayley Newman-Petryshen got her period while at school. Unfortunately, she had no menstrual products on hand.
She found a three-pack of tampons at the convenience store on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus. “It was obscene,” she said of the inflated price. She shelled out to avoid missing class, but vowed to find a better solution for those who might find themselves in a similar situation in the future.
Thus began years of advocacy to encourage the university to stock bathrooms with products at no charge and so-called period poverty — which the federal government defines as a lack of access to products, education, hygiene facilities and/or waste management, that impacts 17 per cent of people who menstruate in Canada.
“We hit a lot of institutional barriers,” Ms. Newman-Petryshen said, including pressure to provide proof of need. “It just seemed like an obvious thing to me. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to prove to you that people need basic necessities in the bathroom.’”
Her efforts led to a few product giveaways, the creation of a menstrual equity committee and the running of a survey. The latter found that 77 per cent of students who menstruate had been caught on campus without supplies and 38 per cent struggled to afford products.
In early 2022, while Ms. Newman-Petryshen was pursuing her master’s in political science at McGill University, Laurier finally launched a pilot to offer free pads and tampons in a small fraction of its bathrooms — just 14.
While period-related advocacy on university campuses was scant back when Ms. Newman-Petryshen started, things have definitely moved forward.
“Periods are having a moment. Everybody is talking about them,” said Lisa Smith, sociology professor at Douglas College in B.C. who researches menstrual equity. She became involved with the issue a few years ago because of a project with a colleague. Around the same time she recalls how she “almost didn’t make it to class” because of the sudden arrival of her period that necessitated a dash to the campus store to buy supplies that tend to be inflated in price.
In 2021, Concordia University, the University of Calgary and the University of Ottawa all launched pilot projects to offer free menstrual products in some of their campus washrooms. and University of Toronto followed the next year. In 2023, the University of Saskatchewan, University of Manitoba, McMaster University and the University of Waterloo launched similar projects as well.
Meanwhile, numerous Canadian province-wide as well as city-wide K-12 school boards have made statements about menstrual equity and have begun funding product availability. At an even higher level, as of Dec. 15, all federally regulated employers have to make menstrual supplies available to staff for free.
Proof of need data is easy to find now. U of Ottawa’s impact report showed it distributed over 13,000 products over a two-year period. Dr. Smith and her Menstrual Cycle Research Group found that in 2021 — a year before Douglas College began a free products pilot — that 28 per cent of dispensers in campus bathrooms were either broken or empty, the bookstore was improperly charging sales tax on pads and tampons, and 49 per cent of students had been late, had to leave or missed class because of a lack of access to menstrual supplies. A 2021 review study found period-related pain, stigma and a lack of sanitation facilities impacted students’ attendance, concentration and performance in higher education.
“What does that mean in terms of gender equity and access to education spaces? It says to me that these are spaces that are not made for bodies who menstruate,” said U of Manitoba social work assistant professor Lindsay Larios.
She’s involved in a pilot project that includes a full campus audit of product availability and a student survey — modelled on Dr. Smith’s work — plus an art show and panel discussion. “We want to shift the conversation to a justice-oriented approach,” said Dr. Larios. Other schools, including Concordia, are similarly conducting surveys and starting discussions about period equity.
Importantly, period poverty affects students off campus, too. “Menstruation doesn’t just happen in these public spaces. People go home and often experience difficulties that can’t be covered by the support they might get on campus,” said Dr. Smith. Menstrual equity, Dr. Larios noted, also has ties to socioeconomic status, race, culture, even intimate partner violence. To truly deal with pain — and stigma, too — those who menstruate need ongoing, affordable access to their products of choice. That includes hormonal birth control, which can control pain and period frequency, while those with severe period pain, sometimes due to underlying health conditions such as endometriosis, need health care and medications.
Of course, Canadian women are not the only ones struggling to get their hands on products. Thanks to SSHRC funding, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi economics professor Salmata Ouedraogo is researching how women living in Burkina Faso face the same challenges (the main one being that these women live in remote, forested areas with little to no access to products). After seeing this first-hand, Dr. Ouedraogo started a fundraising campaign in order to buy and distribute 400 kits of reusable products to the women. She plans to continue this research in the coming years.
In Canada, the practicalities of offering menstrual products in bathrooms at no charge is being handled differently at various schools. Some rely on student volunteers or third-party contractors, seeking funding from a range of sources. For instance, Laurier uses an outside custodial company to fill dispensers and its pilot is funded via the student affairs advisory committee.
At U of O, the unit head of the recycling and sanitary services, Brigitte Morin, runs the pilot. “It makes sense to have sanitation involved,” she said. “It’s something that’s a human need. People who menstruate need to have access to these products. For me, it’s the same as toilet paper.” The idea for offering free products came from students, but it’s now funded and administered by the university.
Ms. Morin said it’s been challenging to source sturdy dispensers that are easy for staff to stock and offer just one product to users. (Baskets perched on bathroom counters in some locations may get depleted quickly — a testament to the prevalence of period poverty — plus they’re difficult to keep clean). She said labour is the pilot’s biggest expense, not products. The final cost is difficult for her to estimate — it’s higher on the onset as the school must buy dispensers. Western has disclosed its budget, allocating $800,000 over two years for its Free the Dot program. Most schools in Canada, however, are still in the pilot stage and have yet to roll out programs for every single bathroom on campus — so seeing the cost and impact of such programs is a long way off.
Since completing her degree at McGill last spring, Ms. Newman-Petryshen has devoted herself full time to menstrual advocacy via Free Periods Canada and Montreal’s Monthly Dignity. She hopes to move beyond basic access as pads and tampons in public bathrooms become as common as toilet paper, wondering if health and safety regulations will eventually change. “It’s kind of like seatbelts. Once it became the law, it just becomes the norm.”
Then, menstrual advocacy can explore complex issues such as systematic barriers, environmental concerns and poverty, said Ms. Newman-Petryshen. “We can give everybody free pads and tampons, but if they can’t afford food, they still can’t afford food.”