Everyone now and then in the policy debate world some amazingly stupid things get said that sets my hair on fire. Right now, my hair is on fire from….blood. If blood makes you squeamish then you should stop here. If talking about *whispers* lady problems makes you uncomfortable then you should also stop here. For the rest of you, let’s take on a taboo.
PERIODS! Many girls (yes, girls as young as 9 or 10) and women (often well into their 50s) (and people) get them. Then can be regular or irregular. Even regular periods do not start and stop like a well timed clock. It is not like every 28 days at 10am there it is. They can start with spotting or they can start like your water breaking. They trickle down and then suddenly spurt in a dying gush. You can be late, you can be early. They can even suddenly stop for a few months, and start back up again with no notice. They can come with advance symptoms, they can come with little other change, they can be lived with with little effort, or you can be in complete pain from the cramps for days on end. They can signal a pregnancy, a pregnancy loss, and come like a MOFO after you’ve given birth. They can last 2 days, they can last 8 days. You can have medical conditions that make them worse. The variations on these things is a much as women themselves.
Periods mean for upwards of 40-45 years of a person’s life with their uterus, they will need to sop up the flow (Did you know that women are one of the few mammals that continue to live after the reproductive years end? Mostly, we are just allowed to die when we stop being useful to the dudes. So there is that). There are many products available: tampons, pads, cups, disposable, reusable, home made, store bought, the list is endless. All this variation means how much a woman needs in products, when, and for how long is a bit of a mystery, sometimes to the person themself.
Despite periods being, well, normal, talking about periods is still considered taboo. It is like miscarriages. Many people experience them, they are completely normal, yet we are forced into the Red Tent when they come. We have to skulk around work and school with tampons and pads stuffed up their sleeve, we have to whisper to our friends if they can hook us up, we have to deal with embarrassing leaks, may have to leave work and school if we can’t obtain proper supplies. We have laws that mandate toilet paper, soap, and related products in washrooms, but there is nothing similar about a product that many people with a uterus need. And so it has been since the beginning of time. If a machine is even present in a washroom, we are required to put a quarter or more (I’ve seen as much as $2 needed) into the tampon machine in the washroom and if we are really lucky (they are often empty with no notice, leaving you high and not dry) it will spew forth a tampon worth about 10 cents. This is the cost of being a menstruating person.
There has, however, been a growing movement around the world and in Canada about period products. In 2015 the tampon tax movement culminated in the federal government (Conservatives nonetheless) removing the GST/HST from menstrual products. Many provincial PST systems already had removed it or have since also removed it (The debate in Manitoba included Gary Marshall of the Manitoba Party spending a weekend on Twitter mansplaining periods and menstrual product use to menstruators. Yes, it was as delightful as it sounds).
While some women rejoiced at saving 30 or so cents a month in tax, they seemed, and continue to be oddly unphased, by the tariff on menstrual products (9619.00), a tariff that the federal Liberals should be well advised to look at (oh and the tariff on bras for boobs, which is higher (yes, higher) than the tariff on bras for cars) or that fact a piece of cotton on string costs 15 cents a piece when bought in bulk. Of course removing the tax is simply about gender consumption tax equity, an argument that I actually had and still have some issues with, but then like most economists, life with a consumption tax would be much easier if we just taxed everything and addressed equity with an income transfer. Make the tax codes easier and the revenues could be used to address, dunh, dunh, dunh, period poverty. With the GST in place on menstrual products, the government is estimated to have collected over $36M in revenues A YEAR. Over the life of the GST, this means the federal government alone collected more than $1B in blood money. Imagine if that had been redirected to low income menstruating women. But I digress, I lost that battle. (sad trombone for the menstruating tax economist).
We have now, however, moved on to the issue of access, long ignored. Even with the products being tax exempt (well, zero-rated), they are unaffordable AND inaccessible to some people, girls (yes, girls, remember this can start when a girl is 9), and women. Yes, affordability and access need to be separately considered. Not all people can afford these products on a regular basis, not all people can access these products when they need them, and a person should not have to reveal private information about their body in order to obtain access to a needed product at the exact moment they need them. Imagine, having to go to the security desk at work or the office at school asking for a wad of toilet paper and having to say “can you double that, because you know.”
And so enter the United Way Period Promise Research Project. This project is looking at ways to best provide services and products to people who menstruate. The men, yes, men, in the BC legislature on March 7, 2019 had an amazingly respectful conversation about period poverty in the province that lead to a commitment from the BC government to provide start up funds to help all BC public schools provide free pads and tampons to their students by the end of 2019 (they were already free, actually, but this is about access, not making the people go the office and beg for a pad). It was, as it should be, a fairly uncontroversial act.
Enter the federal government, which recently committed to a regulatory process to make free menstrual products available in federally regulated workplaces. It includes a 60 day consultation period and will help about 500,000 people with uteruses (uteri?) who are employed in the federal labour force. The federal Labour Code already requires that employers provide toilet paper, soap, warm (gasp) water, and a means to dry ones hands. This would simply add menstrual products.
Oh Boy, the audacity. Apparently some men took to twitter to talk about personal responsibility, as though menstruators do not already take significant personal responsibility for their periods. We keep products at home, at work (come visit me for my stash), in our purse, in our cars, our backpacks, coat pockets (assuming it has, you know, pockets). We tuck them up our sleeves and in our bras so you don’t have to watch us walk with them out in our hands as we sneak off to the washroom. What the federal government is addressing is not some sort of communist hand out line for government grade pads (you know, like the ones you get in the hospital), is it about, if you will, a federal backstop. Despite hoarding menstrual products in every nook and cranny possible, we all get caught from time to time without access to products. This is about helping women who are caught be able to finish their day without bleeding through their pants. It is about dignity FFS.
The consultations are unlikely to result in a smorgasbord of options, a complaint that some people seem to be levying, laid out in a fan like they do in, gasp, high end restaurants, spas, and even dentists. I would be, in fact, unsurprised if what we are left with is the machines in the washrooms will no longer need a quarter.
There are other interesting reactions, like won’t women steal them? Is this a problem with toilet paper? Soap? Those brown bags to deposit our bloody wares? Paper towels? No, and anyone stealing these items probably really needs them. Is this just about virtue signalling and vote getting? Ummmm, removing the GST on menstrual products did not seem to help the Conservatives win re-election. Should we just leave well enough alone? After all, employers can offer these products if they wish. Here is the problem, they don’t and they seem in no rush to do so.
Will this be the end of the debate? Not bloody likely.