It's hard to believe that in 2018 there's still a stigma around menstruation, despite the fact that it's a natural — not to mention normal — bodily process. But now a national survey by Plan International Canada has revealed that the negative perception not only still exists, but has a profound impact on women's lives.
The online poll, which included 2,000 Canadian women, found that 83 per cent of those age 18-25 felt their periods held them back from fully participating in an activity and that 70 per cent have missed school, work, or a social event as a result.
"Menstruation can affect girls' and women's lives in lots of different ways. Whether it's pain from cramps, lack of access to painkillers, or lack of access to hygiene products, there are many factors that can impact their ability to fully participate in daily activities," youth advocate Amy Bing, of Plan International Canada, told HuffPost Canada in an email.
Period poverty — the inability to afford menstrual products — is a particular concern for women in Canada and around the world, Bing added.
In fact, the national survey found that one-third of Canadian women under 25 have struggled to afford hygiene products to manage their periods.
While the survey did not offer any explanations as to why this might be, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of participants agreed that feminine hygiene products are one of the top three material costs for women, in addition to cosmetic products and beauty services.
"What all people who menstruate know, and what this information underscores dramatically, is that menstrual hygiene products are not a luxury," Caroline Riseboro, the president and CEO of Plan International Canada, told HuffPost Canada via email.
"Like toilet paper, soap and water, hygiene products are not optional. They are necessary and essential to women's and girls' health, comfort, and participation in work, school and society."
In addition to preventing women and girls from getting equal career and learning opportunities, a lack of accessible menstrual products also adds to the period taboo because it sends the message that menstruation isn't normal.
However, some campaigns are trying to change this, such as the "Free the Tampon" movement at Toronto's Centennial College, Riseboro noted.
The initiative makes feminine hygiene products available for free in all women's washrooms across the college's Toronto campuses. And in an effort to be inclusive, the packaging is gender-neutral to acknowledge that trans and non-binary students menstruate, too, CBC News reports.
"Not only do actions like these lead the way in combatting period poverty, they also work to normalize menstrual health products as something that should be easily accessible everywhere, and not something women and girls should be ashamed of or struggle for," Riseboro said, in regards to the "Free the Tampon" campaign.
While periods are still taboo, school campuses in major Canadian cities — including Montreal, Calgary and Halifax — are noticing the conversation around menstruation is slowly changing.
"I think there's these little pockets of change that are occurring, and over time, especially if institutions such as ours start to get on that bandwagon, and start to provide these products for free, you're going to see a growth — hopefully an exponential growth — in this movement," Shannon Brooks, Centennial's associate vice president of corporate services, said, according to CBC News.
Youth ambassador Bing agrees. "Too often, menstruation is treated like a secret that can only be talked about among women and girls, behind closed doors – if at all," she said. "People of all genders must come together to have real, open conversations about these issues, and raise their voices to help address the social, emotional and financial costs of menstruation."
The Canadian government removed tax on menstrual products in 2015, and in February this year, the NDP passed a resolution to make these products free.
"Tampon and pads should be treated just like toilet paper," said Tiffany Balducci, a Durham Labour Council party delegate. "They serve a similar purpose — items that tend to our everyday, normal bodily functions."
Recognizing the need for accessible feminine hygiene products shows people are finally acknowledging that period shame is gender discrimination.
"It's critical that we recognize that period stigma, taboos, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, and the resulting loss of opportunities to participate fully in society are part of a bigger picture of how women and girls are discriminated against every day," said Riseboro.
"We're calling on everyone to bring periods to the start of the conversation, to advocate and take action to prioritize women's and girls' menstrual hygiene."
Plan International Canada's national survey came at an appropriate time, as May 28 marks Menstrual Hygiene Day.
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