This Sociology instructor is advocating for menstrual equity across the country

Throughout Dr. Lisa Smith’s career, her expertise has been rooted in sexual and reproductive health. Now she’s on a mission to dismantle stigmas around menstruation and period poverty across Canada. 

Sociology instructor, Dr. Lisa Smith.

When people face period poverty, it means that they face a lack of access to menstrual products. This could be due to financial, social or geographical barriers. An overarching issue associated with period poverty is a lack of education about menstruation, which furthers societal stigmas and encourages it to be a taboo subject. 

“In our research, menstrual education was identified by almost all study participants as a key gap,” she says. “They highlighted that there is an opportunity to integrate and expand education through existing programs.” 

Lisa explains that not everyone experiences menstruation or period poverty in the same way – everyone’s needs are different. These inequities are often tied to deeper systemic issues that limit access to sexual and reproductive health services, including menstrual supplies.

“If we really want to talk about what it means to dismantle stigma, it’s more than just having product.”

Steps forward in period equity

Today, the average Canadian spends nearly $6,000 in their lifetime on period products – a number magnified in rural communities. However, since there hasn’t been a nationwide study on period poverty, the full extent of the issue is unknown.  

For a long time, menstruation has often been viewed as unclean, placing shame and embarrassment on those who menstruate. Lisa believes that for widespread change to occur, this preconception needs to shift.  

“Improving access to supplies is such an important first step, but I’m definitely thinking about what’s next,” she says. “If we really want to talk about what it means to dismantle stigma, it’s more than just having product.” 

Earlier this year, Lisa, Niki Oveisi (Master of Public Health student at UBC) and Zeba Khan (founder and director of Free Periods Canada and a medical student at UBC), were granted research funding from Women and Gender Equality (WAGE). WAGE is a department of the federal government that works to advance equality across all genders. The department provided Lisa and her colleagues with $38,765.88 in funding for their project, Menstrual equity and period poverty in Canada: Current knowledge and future research directions. 

This initiative stems from a larger plan for the federal government to provide $25 million of funding toward making period products more accessible to all Canadians. 

“As a researcher in this field, I know there’s a lack of knowledge on this topic,” she says. “We were excited that the government was open to allowing us to look at the existing literature and data, as well as carry out some original research to fill in those knowledge gaps.” 

Conducting research

Beyond analyzing traditional academic literature, research being conducted at a community level has been integral to filling in missing information, Lisa says.  

“Some of the folks who are already doing that work, and are building knowledge about this issue, are really grounded within the community and understand the lived experience of period poverty – particularly those who are most often directly impacted by this issue.” 

One of the organizations that helps address social issues in communities across British Columbia is United Way BC, which has been a frontrunner in campaigning for period product accessibility. Their Period Promise campaign collects donations to distribute free menstrual products to those lacking access. 

During her research, Lisa and her team spoke with 31 individuals advocating for menstrual equity across the country. From these interviews, participants noted that the involvement of grassroots and non-profit organizations like United Way BC have led the movement to what it is today. 

“Most menstrual equity advocates we spoke with were volunteers,” she says. “It was shocking to see how much the movement of menstrual justice is currently relying on uncompensated labour.”

In addition to the issue of undercompensated labours, Lisa realizes that communities face dramatically different problems, so it’s important to decide the most appropriate strategies to get products to people in specific situations. 

“While research participants emphasized the importance of community connected organizations, they identified the need for an intersectional framework that addresses the high level of cultural diversity in the country, the impact of regional inequalities and the need to decolonize menstruation.” 

Menstrual Cycle Research Group

In 2020, Lisa was at the forefront of creating the Menstrual Cycle Research Group (MCRG), a collective that brings together faculty, staff and students to engage in research and knowledge mobilization in support of menstrual equity and justice. 

Free menstrual products found across campus washrooms.

One of the group’s focal points was the Period Poverty Access Project. The project analyzed the lack of readily available period products in post-secondary institutions. The results of the MCRG’s research were undeniable – students, staff and faculty desperately required easier access to period products on campus.   

Earlier this year, tampons and pads were made available for free in all washrooms across all three campuses in women’s, men’s and gender-neutral washrooms. Their collaboration with the Douglas Students’ Union for signage on this project lent greatly to explaining why those products were added to all washrooms.  

“Seeing these products across campuses was an exciting moment for me as a researcher,” she says. “I feel really proud to be a member of the Douglas College community, one of the first colleges to make menstrual supplies freely available across campuses.” 

Lisa is looking forward to continuing to grow the conversation about menstrual equity in Canada and hopes that the MCRG can contribute research that is engaging with and connected to the broader movement.  

During the Summer 2023 semester, Lisa will be presenting her findings at the conferences, the Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference and the Menstruation Research Network in St. Andrews, Scotland. 

%d bloggers like this: