Pe­riod Poverty

Nova Sco­tians are be­ing forced to choose be­tween food and men­strual prod­ucts. The cy­cle needs to stop.

The Coast - - FRONT PAGE - BY SAN­DRA C. HANNEBOHM San­dra C. Hannebohm is The Coast’s hous­ing re­porter. Send story tips on hous­ing, poverty or wel­fare to hous­[email protected]­coast.ca. Follow San­dra on Twit­ter @San­draHan­nebohm.

Gayle Col­li­cutt was 17 when she saw her first women’s shelter. “My mother was an al­co­holic and I was out of con­trol,” she says, so even­tu­ally she was dropped off at Ad­sum House for Women and Chil­dren. The dra­matic change in sur­round­ings “was very eye-open­ing.

“I got stolen from a lot,” she says. “I even had un­der­wear stolen.” The theft made her an­gry at first, but in hind­sight, “I was pretty priv­i­leged com­pared to the other women I was liv­ing with.”

Since then, “I’ve learned not to judge when peo­ple steal,” she says.

Theft is one of the last re­sorts for women, trans men and non-bi­nary folk who can’t af­ford pe­riod prod­ucts while on in­come as­sis­tance and em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. “They’re steal­ing ba­sic items,” says Col­li­cutt, like toi­let pa­per, soap, food, pads, tam­pons and other fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts.

That’s why, af­ter hear­ing the sto­ries of Col­li­cutt, fel­low ad­vo­cate Jodi Brown and oth­ers, Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MLA Karla Mac­Far­lane tabled a bill to add an al­lowance for pe­riod prod­ucts to in­come as­sis­tance and em­ploy­ment sup­port ben­e­fits. “This would al­low ex­tra money to be given to those who would re­quire ex­tra help to cover the cost of men­strual prod­ucts,” says Mac­Far­lane.

The Cana­dian Men­stru­a­tors Campaign found that women spend at least $29 per per­son per year on pe­riod prod­ucts, but other estimates range from $66 to $250 per year. For peo­ple with heavy flow, med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions or mul­ti­ple women in the house­hold, the cost per year would be even higher.

Em­ploy­ment Sup­port and In­come As­sis­tance ben­e­fits pro­vide al­lowances for things like food, shelter, transporta­tion and hy­giene prod­ucts, but by the time all the bills are paid there often isn’t much left to pay for other ba­sic needs. Many have to choose be­tween food and men­strual prod­ucts.

If it passes, Mac­Far­lane’s Bill 126 will make Nova Sco­tia the first province in Canada to have its own pe­riod poverty leg­is­la­tion.

Jodi Brown, like Col­li­cutt, is an anti-poverty ad­vo­cate with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the sac­ri­fices peo­ple make in or­der to cover their ba­sic needs. The women first met on so­cial me­dia, where they spoke out about child poverty and home­less­ness. They met once in per­son at the Cen­tral Li­brary, and the next time they were to­gether, they were sit­ting in a room with PC party rep­re­sen­ta­tives to talk about in­tro­duc­ing a bill on pe­riod poverty.

“Even if some­times [they] dis­agree, they’re the type of in­di­vid­u­als that to­gether are pow­er­houses,” says Mac­Far­lane. “They are not let­ting this go on their watch.”

Brown recorded her bud­get while she was on the pro­gram, and later posted it on a Face­book group called Nova Sco­tia Hous­ing Tenants. It lays out her al­lowances, in­clud­ing the hy­giene bud­get.

“Do #Fe­males re­ally have to choose be­tween eat­ing or buy­ing tam­pons? Se­ri­ously what op­tions are out there? Hav­ing your pe­riod once a month is nor­mal and not new!!!” she says in the post.

They got little re­sponse from their ini­tial let­ters to govern­ment, but to­gether with other women Brown and Col­li­cutt col­lected sto­ries and data to make their case to the PC arty. Mac­Far­lane says that day opened her eyes. “I didn’t re­al­ize how much of a chal­lenge it is un­til I sat down with Jodi and Gayle, who brought a lot of wis­dom to the con­ver­sa­tion.”

Col­li­cutt con­nected Mac­Far­lane with a woman who told her that while she was liv­ing on in­come as­sis­tance and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing med­i­cal prob­lems re­lated to her pe­riod, she had to steal tam­pons and pads she couldn’t af­ford to buy.

“I just never thought that would be something they would have to do,” says Mac­Far­lane. “This is where we have to have em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing for these sit­u­a­tions. A lot of peo­ple say, ‘Oh my gosh, you can buy a box of tam­pons for $4.99,’ but ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent, and not ev­ery­one can use a tam­pon, and maybe they re­quire a pad and a tam­pon. There is a big, big strug­gle out there, and there is a thing in Nova Sco­tia known as pe­riod poverty. It does ex­ist. It doesn’t need to, though.”

Al­most 20 per­cent of Nova Sco­tians live on low in­come, ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada, and half of all in­come as­sis­tance re­cip­i­ents are women. About half of all low-in­come house­holds are also women. Based on data she re­quested from the govern­ment, Col­li­cutt says the new leg­is­la­tion would be help­ing al­most 18,000 peo­ple on in­come as­sis­tance alone.

About 10 years ago, Jodi Brown lost her job as an air­craft main­te­nance plan­ner be­cause of se­vere dam­age to her inner ear, which threw off her bal­ance. For two years she un­der­went test­ing but doc­tors were un­able to di­ag­nose her. The closer she got to a diagnosis, she says, the more her body fell apart. A cas­cade of health prob­lems fol­lowed— di­a­betes, de­pres­sion, liver dam­age—and she re­cently be­came ane­mic be­cause of com­pli­ca­tions with her pe­riod.

“This past fall I was going through a tam­pon and a pad ev­ery hour,” she says, “and it was still leak­ing.” It went on this way for three days. “I couldn’t even go out in pub­lic,” she says. But at least she could af­ford the prod­ucts. She thought to her­self, “if it had hap­pened while I was on in­come as­sis­tance, I would have been screwed.”

“It’s health,” says Col­li­cutt. “This is part of our biology...I didn’t wake up at 13 and say ‘I want to bleed ev­ery month.’ This is lit­er­ally not a choice.”

Col­li­cutt has lived in shel­ters a few times, but stopped col­lect­ing in­come as­sis­tance in 2013 and ap­plied for a stu­dent loan. Around that time she also got into pol­i­tics, can­vass­ing for an elec­tion campaign. Peo­ple opened their doors to her, but she wasn’t happy with what she saw.

“I saw all the poverty at the doors,” she says, “and I was like, wow.”

A 2018 study by Plan In­ter­na­tional found more than two mil­lion women sur­vive on low in­come, and the high­est rates of poverty are among peo­ple of colour, as well as peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. The same study found that fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts are one of the “top three ma­te­rial costs of be­ing a woman.”

In Nova Sco­tia, in­come as­sis­tance for a sin­gle per­son in­cludes $300 per month for rent, and an­other $275 for ev­ery­thing else: Gro­ceries, tele­phone and toi­letries. The dif­fi­culty pe­riod poverty pre­sents is com­pounded by the fact that Nova Sco­tia has the high­est rate of food in­se­cu­rity in Canada. If peo­ple with pe­ri­ods can’t af­ford food, they have less free­dom to make other ne­ces­sity pur­chases. Parker Street Food and Fur­ni­ture Bank on May­nard Street con­firmed that pe­riod prod­ucts are the high­est re­quested item, af­ter food.

In con­ver­sa­tion with Col­li­cutt, Brown and oth­ers, Mac­Far­lane wrote an amend­ment to the Em­ploy­ment Sup­port and In­come As­sis­tance Act. The bill passed first read­ing at Province House on March 28.

“We had to start off with something that would be un­der­stand­ing and tan­gi­ble,” she says. She wanted the lan­guage to be open enough that it would ap­ply to trans men with men­strual cy­cles. “It’s for anyone that has a men­strual cy­cle and needs as­sis­tance.”

Bill 126 was writ­ten with the hope that, if it doesn’t pass, govern­ment will ad­dress pe­riod poverty by amend­ing the act on its own, or by some other means.

“We have a se­ri­ous, se­ri­ous poverty is­sue here in Nova Sco­tia,” says Mac­Far­lane. “There’s so much more that needs to be ad­dressed, but we can make small gains and there are things that are doable right now. This is just one of those things.”

The depart­ment of com­mu­nity ser­vices de­clined an interview re­quest, but sent a state­ment de­tail­ing the success of a $3,000 grant that helped a sex­ual health clinic in Sheet Har­bour give 77 women free fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts. Through ini­tia­tives like this, they say, “govern­ment is com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing long-term, sus­tain­able solutions to help ad­dress poverty in Nova Sco­tia.”

It’s possible that the bill will see a sec­ond read­ing in the fall ses­sion, but there’s no guar­an­tee. In the mean­time Mac­Far­lane, Col­li­cutt and Brown agree that they’ve sparked a ma­jor con­ver­sa­tion among busi­nesses, non­prof­its and govern­ment.

The High­field Park Phar­ma­choice in Dart­mouth of­fers free pe­riod prod­ucts to anyone who comes in ask­ing. Man­ager Cas­sidy Belle­fontaine heard about Bill 126 when it was an­nounced in March. She says she read re­sponses on so­cial me­dia that brought the point home. “I re­al­ized this is ac­tu­ally a se­ri­ous need that peo­ple don’t have ac­cess to,” she says. For peo­ple who live on low in­come but aren’t on so­cial as­sis­tance, she says, “What bet­ter place to get them than a phar­macy?”

Belle­fontaine doesn’t see it as a per­ma­nent solution, but it’s a start: “At the end of the day it shouldn’t be up to the char­i­ties or the small busi­nesses.”

This week, Hal­i­fax coun­cil­lor Lorelei Ni­coll’s motion to get staff to look at a pi­lot pro­ject to make men­strual prod­ucts avail­able in all mu­nic­i­pal build­ings was passed by coun­cil. If even­tu­ally approved, all com­mu­nity cen­tres, pools and are­nas will be stocked with free men­strual prod­ucts. London, ON was the first mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Canada to im­ple­ment a pro­gram like this. Ni­coll hopes Hal­i­fax can be the sec­ond.

“As a woman, all my life I was kind of won­der­ing why do we even have to pay for these things,” says Ni­coll. Know­ing the feel­ing of hav­ing “to look for when they go on sale to ac­tu­ally buy them and af­ford them” and in­creased aware­ness from lo­cal groups and phar­ma­cies like High­field Park moved her to make the motion.

Mac­Far­lane gives much credit to Brown and Col­li­cutt for bring­ing this is­sue for­ward. “They have been amaz­ing ad­vo­cates in sup­port­ing this and find­ing the facts around it, and con­nect­ing me with those that are strug­gling,” she says. “It’s def­i­nitely opened up a lot of other con­ver­sa­tions around poverty in gen­eral.

“Ev­ery­thing they do they do with such for­ti­tude. These are two in­di­vid­u­als that are so in­nately au­then­tic. You can tell that they are very ar­tic­u­late, in­tel­li­gent and they don’t back down. It’s their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and jour­neys that have made them so strong.”

“My mes­sage,” says Col­li­cutt, “is for politi­cians to rec­og­nize that this is a health is­sue. We shouldn’t have to em­bar­rass our­selves by ask­ing for help. Women have had pe­ri­ods since the be­gin­ning of time. It’s a ba­sic need, like toi­let pa­per. It’s about re­mov­ing the em­bar­rass­ment for women and giv­ing them free­dom for their prod­ucts.”

KYLEE NUNN

Gayle Col­li­cutt and Jodi Brown are not let­ting the is­sue of pe­riod poverty go on their watch.

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