VICTORIA — Annie Ohana was in her classroom at L.A. Matheson high school in Surrey last week, when an all-too-common scene played out. A young woman ducked into her room after the final bell rang and quietly asked: “Ms. Ohana, do you have a tampon or pad?”
“Teachers at schools and counsellors, especially as women, we do often keep a little stash of products,” said Ohana.
So Ohana, the Aboriginal department head at the school, gladly reached into her own supply to help out. It made the difference between the student being able to stay at school for her extracurricular activities, or having to leave.
“She was volunteering for something, but instead of going home because of her period, she was able to ask me,” said Ohana. “I was able to provide it, but that’s my own money … the system should provide it. In this case I was there, but what if I was gone?”
It’s a question increasingly being asked by teachers, parents, students and advocates in hundreds of schools across the province. Why is there no provincial funding to provide free tampons and pads for female students in school washrooms?
Instead, B.C. has a patchwork system that varies from school to school and often results in embarrassment and shame for female students.
Some districts put coin-operated dispensers in women’s bathrooms (requiring girls to have exact change to get a pad or tampon while bleeding and in need). Others schools have literally nothing. In some cases, like in Burnaby North Secondary, students have taken it upon themselves to organize free baskets of products in washrooms because nobody else will do it for them.
Some schools do offer free tampons or pads — but only if the student interrupts her teacher in class, asks to be excused in front of all her classmates, walks to the office, waits in the queue at the front desk and then asks the (possibly male) receptionist in front of everyone else sitting in that office if she can please have a tampon thank-you-very-much. You couldn’t create a more cumbersome and humiliating system if you tried.
Some girls can’t afford to buy their own products. And there’s cultural and social stigmas around menstruation that can leave young women, at a difficult time in their life, isolated from family and friends. It’s even more difficult if the student is transgender. The very least the education system could do is offer them a discreet, free, and easy way to get a tampon or pad from every school washroom, without having to ask.
One in seven Canadian girls have missed school because they couldn’t get a tampon or pad during their period, according to a Procter & Gamble survey.
The issue was raised at the legislature by Green Leader Andrew Weaver during International Women’s Day. He based his question on a suggestion from one of his staff members, Stephanie Siddon.
Education Minister Rob Fleming responded by pointing to community grant programs that schools could try to tap, while offering to conduct more research into the issue.
It was an unimpressive display of leadership, said Weaver.
“There are some things that you just think about for 30 seconds and you realize, yeah that just makes sense,” said Weaver. “Here we are in 2019. You just do it. This falls into that. … “I would have thought he’d just have done it.”
Weaver’s own quick calculations — done in the middle of an interview using public pricing for hygiene products — pegged the rough cost at $200,000 a month for the education system, or $2.4 million a year to give more than 260,000 enrolled female students access to tampons and pads.
That amounts to a “rounding error” in the ministry’s $6.5-billion annual budget that should be acted upon without wasting time researching further, said Weaver.
New Westminster became one of the first school districts in Canada to fully fund feminine hygiene products when it voted last month to spend $10,000 of its own operating budget on dispensers and $7,000 annually to stock them with free supplies for women.
The issue is also on agendas for school trustees in Surrey, Greater Victoria, Cariboo-Chilcotin, Burnaby and Vancouver.
School districts are charging forward on their own, while the province lags behind.
The government could save time and effort by simply listening to advocates like Douglas College professor Selina Tribe, who has been clear, consistent and vocal about the issue for months.
Or Sussanne Skidmore, the secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour who is helping lead the United Way’s Period Promise campaign that sent a letter to Fleming on March 7 asking him to “take a leadership role in addressing period poverty in our province.”
“If there’s public policy around this, we can normalize it and make it no different than toilet paper,” Skidmore said. “It’s a human right.”
How frustrating it must be for socially progressive New Democrats to watch their government move so slowly on a clear-cut human rights issue like this.
“There are lots of leaders stepping up to say it can be done and it’s not that complicated,” said Skidmore.
Social Development Minister Shane Simpson is set to announce B.C.’s new poverty reduction strategy on Monday. There’s no good reason why this couldn’t be included.
Fleming said in statements last week that he’s “committed to supporting students around the province who need access to these products and I look forward to putting forward a plan soon.”
In the meantime, he said, “ministry staff are currently researching this further.”
Researching what exactly?
Is there some sort of cost-benefit ratio needed before the minister will sign off on funding access to hygiene products?
Is there a price to be put on the embarrassment faced in having to ask the office receptionist or school nurse (if the nursing office hasn’t already been eliminated due to cutbacks) for a tampon?
Is there a figure we can apply to how many days it’s acceptable for a female student to go home sick because they get their period in class and have nowhere to turn?
Does the ministry research the cost of toilet paper or soap?
For Ohana, who teaches social justice to her high school students, the issue is clear.
“To me, this is tied in to social justice,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s a human right. It’s a human reality.
“There’s a shame element,” Ohana added. “If girls can feel they can be proud of their bodies, and part of that being menstruation, that’s going to impact their self-esteem and confidence.”
That’s worth the cost.
Free advice to the education minister: Just do it.