McGill among Canadian campuses to offer free menstrual products in the name of educational equality

It’s a whispered washroom ritual: smuggling sanitary products inside a shirt sleeve when that time of the months rolls around.

Some, short on supplies, rummage for a quarter to feed the dispenser, or as a last resort, entreat a stallmate to borrow a spare tampon or pad.

But advocates at Canadian universities and colleges are trying to make period-related panic a thing of the past by offering free tampons and pads on campus, contending that access to menstrual products is not only a hygienic necessity, but an issue of educational equality.

The menstrual equity movement has been gaining steam among student leaders at schools in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Halifax, but Centennial College’s “Free the Tampon” project is embracing the initiative at the administrative level.

Over the past academic year, the college has been resetting the coin-operated dispensers in restrooms across the school’s campuses in the Toronto area to provide pads and sanitary napkins free of charge, rather than the standard 25-cent fee.

Shannon Brooks, Centennial’s associate vice-president of corporate services, said the initiative was proposed by a male staff member, who having taken for granted that using the restroom was an all-inclusive, complimentary service, was dismayed to learn that people who menstruate have to provide for their own supplies.

“It’s one of those things that it’s always been that way, so you don’t really think about it,” Brooks said. “To me, this is a way of changing expectations.”

After crunching the numbers, Brooks estimated it would cost approximately $1,000 per month to supply free menstrual products across the college’s campuses. However, she found those costs were offset by about $3,000 in annual savings from cutting the expenses involved in collecting change from the pay-for-product dispensers.

The initiative’s net cost has been pegged at roughly $7,000 per year, said Brooks, which seemed like a relatively minor price to pay for offering a more inclusive and equitable restroom asylumexperience.

Even since the federal tax on menstrual hygiene products was lifted in 2015, Brooks said the cost of pads and tampons can be burdensome for many of Centennial’s students, around 90 per cent of whom receive financial aid from the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

“The cost is negligible, the impact is huge, and it’s just one more way we can support our students in making life a little bit easier for them so they can focus on learning.”

For Allisa Lim, vice-president of Ignite Student Life at Humber College’s Lakeshore campus in west end Toronto, increasing accessibility to pads and tampons was not only a campaign promise in her bid for student government, but an opportunity to break down the “stigma” surrounding menstruation.

Lim said menstrual product kits are available in several public spaces across Humber’s campuses. The kits are packaged externally with gender-neutral branding in an effort to recognize that not only women menstruate, but trans and non-binary students as well, said Lim.

She and other volunteers will hand out menstrual products to students on campus, regardless of gender. Sometimes, she said, when she hands the kits to male students and tells them what’s inside, they’ll drop the packages in disgust.

But even a short, non-judgmental conversation can go a long way towards normalizing menstruation, Lim said. Of the hundreds of student responses to an online survey about the period project, she said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It shouldn’t be a taboo topic,” she said. “This really has increased the conversation on campus.”

Hilary Jahelka, vice-president of student life at University of Calgary, said she has seen a similar enthusiastic response to the school’s student-backed menstrual product initiative, which is modelled off the distribution of free condoms on campus.

The student union has menstrual hygiene supplies left over from the $3,000 allocated for the project annually, Jahelka said. She said she’s heard from other student associations across the country asking how they can implement similar period-positive initiatives.

The president of the Students’ Society of McGill University in Montreal said in an email that it is in the process of making menstrual products freely available across campus.

At University of King’s College in Halifax, a local sexual health centre supplies menstrual hygiene products that are free for students to pick up outside student union offices. King’s Student Union president Lianne Xiao said her team is waiting for the school’s administration to approve funding for a pilot project to broaden the effort’s reach and make the products available across campus.

A University of King’s College spokesperson said the school is considering the union’s request as part of its budget to be set in June.

Brooks said she hopes Centennial’s program will help lead the way for menstrual products to be made more accessible not only in academic settings, but all public restrooms.

“I think there’s these little pockets of change that are occurring, and over time, especially if institutions such as ours start to get on that bandwagon, and start to provide these products for free, you’re going to see a growth — hopefully an exponential growth — in this movement.”