When Leisha Toory, the founder of the Period Priority Project, saw that some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had to choose between buying food or menstrual products, she decided something must be done.
Toory is an International Student in her fourth year of political science at Memorial University. She was born in Mauritius and grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and she has been thinking about access to period products for a long time.
From a young age, she can remember her mom complaining about how expensive menstrual products are—but as a child, she would never question it. In her early teens, she started questioning the high cost of period products. She asked herself: “why are they so expensive if they’re a basic necessity?”
This inspired Toory to start the Period Priority Project. The project is a period supply bank, for people who menstruate and need menstrual products. Through the project, Toory advocates for period equity and strives to make a difference through each donation, so there is one less person who has to worry about the affordability, accessibility and safety of period products.
The period supply bank relies on donations from the community. When someone wishes to donate they can reach out to Toory, and organize a time to meet up for her to retrieve the donations. She will then sort the products into bags, contact shelters to see if they need menstrual products, and then drop off the bags to them. Shelters can also reach out to Toory when they are low on products.
Toory believes there is a need for greater period product accessibility in Newfoundland and Labrador. She explained to The Independent that in St. John’s, the homelessness rate is high and that there is lots of food insecurity.
“There are so many people out there who have to choose between shelter and period products,” she said. “And so many people will use other things than safe menstrual products for their period. It’s not okay.”
According to Toory, period poverty is when folks do not have access to safe and affordable menstrual products. “There is a myth that it is only third world countries who experience period poverty, but it happens all over the world.”
For example, those living in northern regions, such as Labrador or the territories, are going to experience period poverty because they rely on cargo shipments. And in Newfoundland, the homelessness rate is so high, that some people have to choose between a shelter for the night or period products.
Toory has distributed 4120 menstrual products since May. She has distributed products to 13 shelters across St. John’s and has shipped period products to Labrador and the territories—including Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Rigolet, Nain, and Yukon.
Normalized Cultural Silence
Toory told The Independent that as a teen, she questioned the way people talked about periods. “Why do all my friends use euphemisms if it is a normal function?”
That is when she realized that there is normalized cultural silence when it comes to menstruation.
“It’s a barrier to education and a breeding ground for misinformation, that makes folks reluctant to ask questions about their body, and talk about what is happening,” Toory explained. “It shouldn’t require an act of feminism to know how my body works. And that’s what I want to do with the project. In addition to achieving menstrual equity through donations of menstrual products, I want to talk about period poverty, and how we can help and ask questions. Because asking questions is how we achieve menstrual equity.”
The culture of silence that has been normalized around periods means that important discussions about menstrual hygiene often don’t take place. According to Toory, menstrual hygiene is a matter of health—and health is a human right.
“If people don’t have access to period products, they will have health issues,” she emphasized. “It is also about human dignity. It is not a privilege, it is not a luxury; it is a human right.”
Toory believes that in order to destigmatize periods, “it starts with a conversation.” This conversation can take place at home and in schools because folks need to understand how their body works.
“I don’t understand why we have to be so quiet about it,” she said.
As part of this conversation, I told Toory about the difficulties I have experienced with menstrual cramps and bleeding, including missing classes and work. However, in most workplaces, it is generally not acceptable to call in sick to work for menstrual discomfort. She agreed that this is part of the normalized cultural silence surrounding periods.
“It’s stigmatized, we don’t talk about it.”
Other countries around the world, including Japan, Taiwan, and Zambia, have recognized a menstrual leave policy in workplaces—where women are allowed to take a paid day (or two) off from work during their period.
Toory also supports a policy like this, because workplace practices also reinforce the cultural silence around periods.
“People who don’t menstruate think that people have the same experience while menstruating, but some people have very different experiences during their menstrual cycle,” she said. “[Sick days] would be a relief.”
Toory has placed menstrual products in all the gender-neutral washrooms at Memorial University. She explains she did this “to send a message that not all people who menstruate are cis-women and not all cis-women menstruate.”
“It’s 2022, we need to change the discourse,” Toory told The Independent. “People are now being open about pronouns, and it is important to be respectful of that, rather than generalizing.”
In discourse and advertising about menstruation, cis-women have always been the focus. “For non-binary, two-spirit, intersex, and trans folks, when they see only [cis-gendered] women in period ads, it can be difficult.”
“It doesn’t make them feel included and safe. And as a community, we need to make sure they are included because that is the right thing to do.”
Period Support as Part of Public Health
In October 2021, Newfoundland and Labrador became the fifth province in Canada to provide menstrual products in school washrooms for free.
Toory thinks this is good, but a lot more needs to be done—such as a no-tax policy for menstrual products.
“Period products are still very expensive,” she said. The product Leisha uses costs $20. “Given the rising costs, it’s not feasible. As an international student, I feel that, and people living on a fixed budget will feel that. So more needs to be done because it is so expensive.”
In Scotland, period products are provided for free. In 2020, the Scottish Parliament passed the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, requiring local authorities to ensure that period products are free and obtainable.
Toory thinks the same thing should happen here.
“When you go to the bathroom you have hand wash and you have tissue paper because these things are essential,” she explained. “Just like period products, they are a need, not a luxury.” Period products are an essential hygiene product, like toilet paper, and should be provided for free in washrooms just like any other public bathroom hygiene product.
Toory believes that providing free menstrual products through period product banks like the Period Priority Project is a good solution, but not a long-term one. “It doesn’t alleviate the problem of high costs for period products,” she explained.
Other long-term solutions should be looked at as well, like the cost of living, minimum wage, workplace policies, reproductive healthcare, and social programs.
“It’s all connected,” Toory asserted.
Reproductive Rights are Human Rights
One of Toory’s goals when forming the Period Priority Project was to remove the stigma associated with periods, and part of that is addressing the shame associated with periods. It is common for folks to fear talking about their periods—even when it might be critical to their health, or even understanding their own body. And as Toory puts it, another form of period shaming is shaming the type of period product someone chooses to use, because every person has a right to choose which type of period product they wish to use. This underscores a deeper discussion of human rights and the right everyone has to make choices over their body.
As Toory explained to The Independent: “the Period Priority Project was founded on the right to choice.”
It is clear that the right to choose is fundamental to achieving menstrual equity and gender equality more broadly. In our conversation, Toory and I reflected on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—a decision to roll back constitutional protections for abortion access in the United States. Toory explains, “the project was founded on the right to choose. And abortion is a personal decision, not a matter of legal or political debate.”
Although focusing on the accessibility of period products, the Period Priority Project is making a greater statement about reproductive rights: that human dignity requires the ability to make choices about one’s own body. Reflecting on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Toory said “it is so scary because this decision has brought us backwards, it makes me fearful for tomorrow.” And although this decision does not directly affect Canada, it emphasizes the need to protect important fundamental freedoms for people who menstruate, such as abortion care, and even access to period products.
Through the Period Priority Project, it’s clear that what Toory wants is for all folks who menstruate to have access to safe period products—so they can have personal dignity and rights over their own body.
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