Hamilton will spend $121K to provide free menstrual products to people in need

It took hours of debate to get there, including talk of toothpaste versus maxi pads, and the threat of people taking more menstrual products than they need.

The debate included talk of toothpaste versus maxi pads, and whether people will hoard menstrual products

Boxes of tampons and pads sit on the shelf in a 2019 file photo
The city will spend $121,000 to put free menstrual products in food banks, and washrooms in five recreation centres. (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

It took hours of debate to get there, but the city of Hamilton is doing a pilot project where it puts free menstrual products in the washrooms of five recreation centres.

Hamilton city council voted Wednesday to spend $121,000 to put the products in food banks, and in baskets in women's and universal restrooms in five spots across the city. But first, councillors debated again whether menstrual products were more important than toothpaste, and whether people will take more products than they need by shoving it all in their bags.

"This is social engineering," said Coun. Terry Whitehead (Ward 14, west Mountain) of providing menstrual products. He later walked back that comment, but said "hoarding is huge."

Also, "we have people who don't have access to toothpaste, toothbrushes … Are we going to start providing that product in our rec centres to meet that very serious health need? Help me understand where you draw the line."

This chart shows the restrooms that will include free menstrual products over the next year. (City of Hamilton)

The debate over providing free menstrual products to people in need has been a rough one at city hall.

It started in late 2018, when Halima Al-Hatimy, the Hamilton-based founder of the FemCare community health initiative, urged council to look at handing out products to people local school boards, shelters and food banks. 

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Al-Hatimy said she's had times in her own life where she's used rags, panhandled and gone hungry to afford menstrual products. And that's not unusual, she said. The average person who menstruates will spend $6,000 in a lifetime for menstrual products, and many just can't afford it.

The subsequent staff report said supplying menstrual products to everyone who uses them would cost more than $11 million. Providing them to 6,797 Ontario Works recipients aged 12 to 49 would cost about $591,339, and for the 532 people in women's shelters, $46,284.

Coun. Maureen Wilson (Ward 1, west end) tried a motion to provide the products to people with low incomes. That failed, and Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end) tried a motion with a narrower focus — a one-year trial in some municipal washrooms. 

Halima Al-Hatimy says she'll return to her native Kenya this week to speak to 3,000 students at Edufest. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Whitehead wasn't the only one Wednesday who worried about people taking more menstrual products than they need. Lloyd Ferguson (Ward 12, Ancaster) said people could be "dumping the basket into their purse and using the money to do something else."

Wilson said the city doesn't have issues with people hoarding toilet paper. But now, "for people who menstruate, all the sudden there's a security issue because we might steal it."

In the end, the motion passed unanimously. The city will also partner with Hamilton Food Share and local food banks to distribute menstrual products, and ask the province to increase the basic needs allotment of social assistance rates.

As for Femcare, its message continues to grow. Al-Hatimy says she's traveling to her native Kenya this week to speak to 3,000 students as an invited guest at Edufest. She's also an honoree at a Women's Empowerment Expo in Los Angeles this year.

Al-Hatimy says she supports the council motion, but "there is still a lot of work ahead of us.

"Providing menstrual products alone will not end period poverty because this problem also includes the lack of access to menstrual hygiene care information, sanitation facilities/materials and clothing. The pilot program FemCare is working on takes a targeted approach and considers all barriers to access. It is a complex issue that requires ongoing policy dialogue."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca