As city councillors continue to debate funding free menstrual products, local businesses and nonprofits are letting the public know they already provide them to help break the stigma.
Hamilton’s sexual assault centre previously stocked pads and tampons in their office using donations or their own funds, but after this week’s conversation at city hall, SACHA also put them in the washroom on the floor where their office is located, recognizing they are a necessity for people who menstruate.
“Who wants to walk around … feeling possibly shame because you’re bleeding and not having anything available to use?” said director Jessica Bonilla-Damptey. “It’s about dignity and respect.”
On Monday, councillors quashed Coun. Maureen Wilson’s motion for a pilot project that would provide free products in some recreation centre and library bathrooms.
The following day, Coun. Sam Merulla indicated he plans to put forward a motion asking staff to look at a year-long pilot project to provide pads and tampons to those with financial need.
This week’s debate created a firestorm of reaction, with much of the backlash directed at Coun. Esther Pauls, who expressed dismay over publicly discussing the issue. It also sparked people to take to social media to encourage writing to councillors and staging a “bleed in” at city hall.
Determination Martial Arts owner Emily Kulpaka said she offers free menstrual products, but kept them under the sink because kids were getting into them and ripping them open.
“And then when we saw that city councillors are embarrassed to talk about it, I was like, that’s it,” she said, noting they’re now in baskets on the back of toilets. “I can deal with a little bit of mess because this is ridiculous.”
It also provides an opportunity to start conversations with young people about their bodies, Kulpaka said.
“Females in sports already face a lot of difficulty in being taken seriously,” she said. “If somebody says like, ‘Oh I’m not feeling great today because I’ve got cramps,’ and if you have an emotional reaction everybody’s like, ‘Oh you’re just PMS-ing.’
“We don’t need other women holding us back from being able to access things that could help us have more opportunities.”
Body Brave executive director Sonia Kumar-Seguin said her disappointment in council’s decision, combined with seeing Determination Martial Arts’ response, inspired her to act.
While the registered charity, which supports those struggling with body image issues and eating disorders, always offered free menstrual products, she felt it was important to move them into an open container in the bathroom where people don’t have to ask for them.
“Most of our clientele identify as female, so it’s an incredibly important health equity issue,” she said. “A lot of our clients are also low-income. They don’t have access necessarily all the time to these kinds of products and it seemed like a very basic right.”
The organization also sees people suffering from significant health issues who may not expect a period and therefore might not have a tampon or pad on hand, Kumar-Seguin said.
“I think openly talking about it is one of the most important ways to break down the stigma,” she said. “When people see conversations like this happening, especially on social media and in the news, then they feel like, ‘OK, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing wrong with the way my body is.'”
PATH Employment Services, which helps people with disabilities find jobs, also made their menstrual products more accessible this week, moving them to a basket in the bathroom instead of having to ask, said employment services manager Tara Aronson.
“People that don’t have a steady income or they’re on Ontario Works or ODSP may not be able to have that equal access to products, so providing those supports to people enables them to have a little bit more freedom in their job search,” she said.
541 Eatery & Exchange took to social media this week to let people know they have hygiene supplies for customers who need them. Executive director Sue Carr said this is nothing new for the nonprofit café, but they wanted to make it more “obvious” and “public” following this week’s discussion.
Carr said she sees it as an extension of what they already do, which is collect dollars to turn into buttons that can be used by anyone as money toward a meal.
“Whether you can afford to that day or not … we’ll have these things available,” she said.
What’s the cost?
Already, the city spends $130,000 to $150,000 stocking toilet paper and $99,000 providing soap in all city-managed facilities annually.
The estimated cost:
•$11.2 million — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 49
•$1.8 million — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 18
•$1.5 million — to provide menstrual products for low-income females in Hamilton between 12 and 49
•$254,014 — to provide menstrual products for low-income females between 12 and 18 in Hamilton
•$591,339 — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 49 who receive Ontario Works
•$106,575 — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 18 who receive OW
•$636,055 — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 49 who are on Ontario Disability Support Program
•$105,444 — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton females between 12 and 18 who are on ODSP
•$46,284 — to provide menstrual products for Hamilton female shelter users between 12 and 49
Source: The City of Hamilton