Q&A: Period poverty exists, and here's what two activists in Waterloo Region are doing about it

The local leaders of Period Purse want to see free menstrual products inside public washrooms.

Cambridge city council had a conversation about offering free menstrual products earlier this week

Kevin Hiebert and Kate Elliott, the leaders of the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge chapter of Period Purse, spoke at Cambridge city council on Sept 17, 2019. (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

Cambridge city council has deferred a decision about stocking bathrooms with free hygiene products until they have more information about how much the program would cost.

Ward 1 Councillor Donna Reid tabled the motion, and is disappointed with the result.

"We did it backwards, because really, I'm cautious about our staff time," she explained. "I wanted to have it accepted in principal before we asked staff to take that time to decide how it was going to be implemented and the cost."

But Kate Elliott and Kevin Hiebert, co-leaders of the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge chapter of Period Purse, are happy to see the start of a conversation about menstrual equity. They spoke with The Morning Edition host Craig Norris earlier this week.

What is Period Purse?

Kate Elliott: Period Purse is a volunteer-run non-profit organization that strives to achieve menstrual equity by providing people on the margins, who menstruate, with access to free menstrual products. It's also about reducing the overall stigma surrounding periods through public education and advocacy.

Is it always institutionally done, through city councils? Or do you sometimes show up to businesses?

Kevin Hiebert: This was our first run at formal advocacy. The organization was started in Toronto, and they've already done lots of work at those levels.

So the issue was referred back to staff. What do you make of that decision?

Kate Elliott: It was a positive. Everyone in that room just agreed that this was a basic necessity for people who menstruate, in the end. We've got people talking, we're here right now, our Facebook page is getting a lot more likes. It's really great, because I think people are actually hearing it and understanding what we're trying to say. Some people have heard this and thought we're trying to say that everyone deserves free period products all the time, and we're trying to run period product companies out of this business. That's not what it is. It's about having access to them in public toilets if you need them.

It's interesting to hear a male voice speaking on this topic. Why is menstrual equity so important to you, Kevin?

Kevin Hiebert: There's a gazillion reasons, and the biggest are my two daughters and wife. Through them, I've been able to get as close as I'll ever be to an understanding of all the barriers and obstacles and difficulties that shouldn't be there. I would think bleeding once a month would be a barrier enough to getting anything done. I don't think the rest of us, in society, need to add to it by shaming and stigmatizing.

Who do you think would benefit from having free menstrual products available at publicly owned buildings?

Kevin Hiebert: Women, girls, trans men, non binary [people]. But really? Everybody.  The city would benefit, the residents would benefit. What kind of boost, to the image of the city, for an out of town guest to come into our city, they have an unexpected need, and show up in a washroom and say "oh thank goodness, the city took care of me."

What does menstrual equity mean?

Kate Elliott: In the short term it's about having access to period products, to have education around it, and to be able to manage your period in a health and dignified way. People think that period poverty exists in other parts of the world, and that it's not a problem in Canada. But it is. It's a different degree, but it's still very much present and we think this a step towards achieving menstrual equity.

What is the hope for Cambridge?

Kevin Hiebert: We're very hopeful that council will have another discussion, and people that may have had difficulty understanding why this was even a conversation will have had the chance to reflect, talk with constituents, their family, and maybe reconsider. We hope to have this motion passed.