Every woman has had a moment in her life where she realizes she just got her period and doesn't have a sanitary pad or tampon with her. While incredibly annoying, most of us can either ask another woman in the bathroom for one or go buy some. Now imagine if you were a homeless woman; where would you go to get a sanitary pad or tampon? Where would you go to privately change it? Would you spend the little money you have on food or tampons? This isn’t a one time burden; it is a monthly occurrence that all women including homeless women deal with.
Homeless women in Montréal (Quebec) are often termed as “hidden” because they are less visible in the public than men. As a result of this designation, determining the exact number of intercity homeless women in Montréal is very difficult.
A 2015 census accounted for a total of 3018 homeless people, 24% (724) of which were women. The census also determined that the female homeless population were younger than the population of homeless men averaging at 30 years old or younger.
Women in Canada menstruate on average once a month for 35-40 years of their lives, a total of 420-480 periods in their lifetime. If the average period is 5 days, that is an average of 2250 days of a woman's life that she is menstruating. Assuming women change their sanitary product every 6 hours (as recommended) they will use 20 sanitary products in a month, resulting in a grand total of 9000 sanitary products in their lifetime.
At 20 cents each, this means that women spend 1800$ ($51 a year) on pads and or tampons in their lifetime. I personally change my sanitary product every 2-3 hours which means I will spend closer to $5400 on sanitary products in my lifetime. This amount all depends on the woman, her flow and her monthly needs. This large number doesn't account for period panties or new sheets when you leak.
I will spend $5400 on tampons?! That's bloody ridiculous. That's a little less than how much my bachelors degree cost. - Me (Sarah Jess)
$1800 over a life-time may not seem like much, but in Montréal that is more than one month’s rent. If a homeless woman had to choose between a warm meal or a tampon, I can only assume she’d choose a warm meal. This might mean that she is using her tampon for longer than the recommended maximum time of 6 hours. While this might not seem like a big deal it can quickly become one. Toxic shock syndrome is a life-treating condition that is caused when toxins from Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus bacteria enter the bloodstream. This bacteria accumulates on tampons and menstrual cups. While toxic shock syndrome can affect anyone, it is mostly associated with women of menstruating ages. It is suggested to change your tampon every 6 hours to minimize the chances of contracting a bacterial infection.
There are no recent statistics on the number of cases in Montréal or even Canada related to toxic shock syndrome, however between 1973 and 1981 there were 53 cases reported. 36 of those cases were connected to the use of tampons.
Homeless women do not always have the luxury of changing their tampons every few hours, and might opt to keep them in for as long as they can, subjecting them to higher risk of bacterial infection than women who can afford their monthly supply. Toxic shock syndrome is not the only complication women need to think of when it comes to menstrual hygiene. Proper menstrual hygiene is important, because improper hygiene can also lead to reproductive damage and gynaecological health issues.
Unfortunately gender has and will continue to be an inequality in health. In the case of Montréal in 2015 women accounted for 25% of the homeless population. Why then, were the needs of 1⁄4 of an at risk population being dismissed?
“The health sector has been relatively slow in grasping the connections among human rights, social injustice, and how everyday life unfolds for patients.” - Elizabeth McGibbon (Social Health Scientist)
Gender Inequality in Health Services
Health services go beyond hospital visits, they include prescription medication, access to medical equipment, access to contraceptives, sanitary products, blood testing, STI testing and much more. Currently High Schools, CEGEPS and Universities give out free condoms to any and all students. Why are condoms, which are worn by men to stop the spread of STIs and stop the conception of a child given away for free but a necessities like menstrual products need to be paid for? Not only are condoms given away for free to stop the spread of STIs but if an STI is contracted the prescription medication to treat it is also free of charge.
Yes we are lucky enough to have free health care, and I understand there is a limit in budget but I think the budget needs to be reviewed and money should be allocated to necessities such as sanitary products for women who cannot afford them, or preferably to all women.
There is a large stigma around menstruation, it is seen as a taboo subject to discuss and in some countries is even seen as dirty. Negative attitudes towards menstruation are portrayed through books, television, and even advertisement for menstruation products themselves. It has been demonstrated empirically that menstrual blood leads to avoidance which then makes women seem as contaminated or dirty. Even in educational booklets there is a negative connotation surrounding the topic of menstruation rather than a positive focus on the natural process. This stigma has impactful consequences on women’s health, confidence, social status and overall well-being. In a Canadian survey done in 2018 by Plan Canada, 2000 women varying in age, province and race were asked questions regarding their periods. 68% of women say their period prevented them from full participation in an activity, 55% of women have missed work, school or social activities due to their period. 56% of women have hid the their period from their male colleagues and 63% have hid the fact that they were bringing a tampon or pad to the bathroom.
A striking 23% of women said that they struggle to afford menstrual products for themselves or their dependents.
These issues often go unaddressed because women are taught to conceal the fact that they are menstruating. There is a great need to make these issues visible to Canadians; access to menstrual products is a right all women in this country should have.
There are many non-profit organisations that are working to make menstrual products available to all Canadian women. Below are just a few:
Bleed the North
The Period Purse
The Red Box Project
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