Breaking the stigma around menstruation

If free supplies mean more productive, healthier employees, that should definitely appeal to employers

Breaking the stigma around menstruation

By Sarah Dobson

Say the words “tampon,” “sanitary napkin” or “menstrual cramps” and many people start looking for the exit or at least try to quickly change the conversation.

Despite the fact menstruation is a regular and inevitable occurrence for half the world’s population, there is still a stigma around the topic — in the media or popular culture, it's largely a taboo topic. And when it comes to the workplace, female employees are often reluctant to reveal they are suffering from cramps or need easy access to a washroom.

So there were probably a lot of uncomfortable people recently when the federal government announced it was considering the possibility of providing free menstrual products in federally regulated workplaces.

This move would "support better health outcomes and workplace productivity while helping to reduce the stigma often associated with menstruation, which continues to persist despite the progress we have made towards gender equality,” said a government release.

Currently, the Canada Labour Code requires employers to provide supplies such as toilet paper, soap, warm water and a means to dry hands. The government is considering adding menstrual products because they’re essential to the health of employees who use them and they may be unaffordable for some employees.

The move follows that of others such as the British Columbia government, which recently announced all public schools in the province will be required to provide free menstrual products for students in school washrooms by the end of 2019.

“This is a common-sense step forward that is, frankly, long overdue,” said Education Minister Rob Fleming. “Students should never have to miss school, extracurricular, sports or social activities because they can’t afford or don’t have access to menstrual products.”

Similarly, in England, the government has said it will provide free sanitary products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year, according to the Guardian.

And back in August 2018, the Scottish government was one of the first to do the same for all pupils and students at schools, colleges and universities.

With the Liberals’ announcement in Canada, the backlash was swift and not surprising. “What about my razor blades?” said one commenter at the Huffington Post. “Next, the federal government workers will be receiving a lunch program, like elementary school kids,” said another.

“If federal workers will be receiving this benefit, why aren't Walmart and McDonald's employees included too?” said another online commenter, while another asked: “Why would this benefit go the best compensated people in the country?”

To be honest, I can't see many women relying on the free supplies unless absolutely necessary.

But while the cost of purchasing menstrual products may be less of an obstacle for federally regulated employees than, say, a high school student in a low-income neighbourhood, the promise of more productive, healthier employees should definitely appeal to employers.

And if the government’s proposal at least gets more people talking about menstruation — or less uncomfortable talking about it — that can only be a good thing when it comes to reducing the stigma and potential barriers for women, both at school and at work.

But then maybe I'm behind on all this — my 15-year-old son just informed me there's not much of a stigma anymore, and he's OK discussing the issue at school. So that's encouraging.

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