All over the world, many people who menstruate lack access to safe, hygienic menstrual products, or the means to manage their periods with dignity.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, established in 2013 by the German non-profit WASH United, is marked worldwide on 28 May each year. The goal of Menstrual Hygiene Day is to create a world without “period poverty” or stigma by 2030. Specifically, Menstrual Hygiene Day aims to raise awareness and change negative social norms surrounding menstruation and ensure that all people who menstruate have adequate access to products for good menstrual hygiene management. The initiative is supported by various non-governmental and governmental agencies and the private sector.
This HillNote provides an overview of legislation on the provision of free menstrual products that was enacted in Scotland in 2021 and examines Canadian initiatives to improve access to menstrual products, focusing on the federal level.
Provision of Free Menstrual Products in Scotland
In January 2021, Scotland enacted the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021, making it the first country in the world to provide free menstrual products to all persons who need them. The Act requires local authorities and education providers to offer period products free of charge.
The Scottish Parliament prepared a financial memorandum that estimated total costs of the initiative based on the 2019 population of 1,579,882 women and girls aged between 11 and 55 years in Scotland. This age range was expected to capture most menstruating people in Scotland.
According to this estimate:
- total costs to the Scottish Administration in 2022-2023 were estimated to be £8.7 million (approximately C$14.8 million) at the mid-uptake range; and
- if uptake increases over the first five years of the program, the total estimated costs to the Scottish Administration could increase to £16.6 million (approximately C$28.3 million) in 2026-2027.
Improving Access to Menstrual Products in Canada
Canadians also have issues with period poverty and stigma. According to research conducted by Plan International Canada Inc., in 2019, 34% of women and girls in Canada had to often or occasionally make budgetary sacrifices in order to afford menstrual products.
A further 63% of women and girls had to miss an activity regularly or occasionally because they were menstruating and had concerns about not being able to access either menstrual products or proper sanitation facilities.
In Canada, the provinces have general jurisdiction over health care, including hospitals, the health care delivery system, the medical profession, and the practice of medicine. Parliament has exercised its jurisdiction in health-related matters through its criminal law power and the federal spending power. Under the federal spending power, Parliament may provide monies to the provinces for specific projects and purposes.
As a result of the federal division of powers, any initiatives to provide access to free menstrual products in Canada have been introduced by provinces and municipalities in Canada. For example, British Columbia and Nova Scotia provide free menstrual products in schools.
Parliamentary Initiatives to Improve Access to Menstrual Products
Between 2004 and 2011, four private members’ bills were introduced that sought to amend the Excise Tax Act in order to exempt menstrual products from the goods and services tax (GST). The bills all died on the Order Paper.
In 2015, a motion on the subject was brought forward by Ms. Irene Mathyssen, Member of Parliament for London-Fanshawe:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should remove the GST from feminine hygiene products.
The motion received unanimous support and was adopted by the House of Commons.
In June 2016, Parliament passed legislation that contained a section responding to the 2015 motion calling for the exemption of menstrual products from GST.
The legislation amended Schedule VI of the Excise Tax Act to add the following exemption:
A supply of a product that is marketed exclusively for feminine hygiene purposes and is a sanitary napkin, tampon, sanitary belt, menstrual cup or other similar product.
The result of this amendment was to add menstrual products to the list of GST/HST zero-rated products.
Proposed Provision of Free Menstrual Products to Federal Workers
In May 2019, the Government of Canada published a Notice of Intent in the Canada Gazette seeking feedback on the possibility of providing free menstrual products in federally regulated workplaces. In response to the Notice of Intent, the Labour Program of Employment and Social Development Canada received 42 submissions of which 57% were supportive of the proposal, while 41% were against the proposal and 2% were neutral.
Major concerns expressed about the proposal were related to:
- the impact of disposable products like pads and tampons on the environment (some jurisdictions address this by providing free reusable menstrual products, such as menstrual cups, to certain groups);
- the safety of provided products if used incorrectly and the quality of products;
- the ability for all employees to access products equally, promoting gender neutrality and equality, and protecting the comfort and safety of employees; and
- the cost to the federal government.
In October 2020, a petition was tabled in the House of Commons calling for the Government of Canada to “provide free menstrual products (tampons and pads) in washrooms at all federally regulated workplaces and address menstrual equity at the national level by recommencing its work on this proposal.”
The Minister of Labour responded to this petition in November 2020 stating that the Government of Canada recognized the importance of the initiative but that the COVID-19 pandemic had posed “significant additional challenge to every individual and workplace across Canada.” Nevertheless, the response stated that “this initiative will be revisited and considered for inclusion in future Labour Program regulatory plans.”
This infographic provides information about menstruation and its costs in Canada.
Infographic created by the Library of Parliament with information from: CanadianMensturators.ca, About the Campaign; Canadian Public Health Association, Period Poverty in Canada and around the Globe; Courtney Howard et al., “Finding Lasting Options for Women,” Canadian Family Physicians, Vol. 57, June 2011; and Statistics Canada, Census Profile 2016 Census.
United Nations Populations Fund, Menstruation and human rights – Frequently asked questions, May 2020.
Parliament of Scotland, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill – Policy Memorandum, April 2019.
Authors: Laura Blackmore and Emilie Lusson, Library of Parliament