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The Women Trying to Make Periods More Affordable in Northern Indigenous Communities

Tampons can cost more than twice as much Canada’s far north.

Nicole White, like most women, knows how embarrassing it can be when your period comes and there are no tampons or pads around.

That anxiety of bleeding through your clothes, or deciding a wad of toilet paper will do for now, is a feeling all too familiar.

But for some Indigenous women it's not a momentary fear, it's a monthly crisis.

"Who wants to say, 'I don't have money for pads. I don't want to have a big wad of toilet paper in my underpants,'" White, a Métis woman who lives in Saskatoon, told VICE. "We know those stories, I'm sure many of us have been there."

Having your period is just not affordable for a lot of Indigenous women in Canada. While prices vary across the country, in Iqaluit a 40-pack of tampons is $14.99, in Attawapiskat it's $17.89.

Down south, the same pack at Walmart is only $7.97.

That's part of why White started Moon Time Sisters, a community-based group that collects feminine hygiene donations to distribute throughout Saskatchewan's northern communities. As a community organizer, she often works with people who live their lives below the poverty line.

"I know feminine hygiene products are a luxury. This is something tangible that we can all work on together," she said.

The feminine hygiene aisle in Iqaluit. Photo by Angela Hill

Northern Saskatchewan Member of Parliament Georgina Jolibois says in her riding she's been told girls and women have stayed home from work or school because they don't have money for tampons, pads or pain relief during their menstruation. She says stigma stops many girls and young women from discussing it.

Of course, tampons aren't the only items that are pricier up north. Last year, a study by Food Secure Canada said the cost of feeding a family in northern Canada is twice as much as in the south. Paying For Nutrition: A Report on Food Costing in the North looked at communities in the Mushkegowuk territories along the west coast of James Bay, including Moose Factory, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat.

It showed that people needed to spend more than half of their income on food in order to meet their basic nutritional requirements. The average cost of groceries for a month in Attawapiskat in June 2015 was $1,909 compared to $847 in Toronto, the study said.

Read More: Food Prices Are Out of Control in Northern Canada

At the same time, the 2011 National Household Survey said the median income of Aboriginal women was $19,289, about $5,500 less than that of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. That means tough choices when it comes to the pocket books of Indigenous women—like choosing between groceries and tampons.

"Choosing food over feminine hygiene products—these are choices that we really shouldn't be putting on our women's population, especially our Indigenous women's population who are already living in situations that can be borderline homelessness or poverty. It's unfair to them," Native Women's Association of Canada president Francyne Joe told VICE.

When tampons and pads aren't affordable, it sends a negative message to women about the importance of their bodies and their role as women in society, according to Joe.

"We are putting them in a position where they almost feel ashamed for being a woman and that's not what we should be doing."

Canada already saw a big push to make feminine hygiene products more accessible, but it didn't address the challenges faced by Indigenous women in the north. In 2015, the federal government killed the "tampon tax" by removing the GST on products that are "marketed exclusively for feminine-hygiene purposes" (although it didn't kill international trade tariffs) after a campaign pointing to the gender-based taxation called it unfair and discriminatory.

More than 74,000 people signed a Change.org petition and the tax removal was applauded globally.

Since then there has been a stronger national dialogue around the challenges Indigenous women face particularly through the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

But there also needs to be action on basic human rights, like menstrual hygiene, that aren't accessible, Joe told VICE.

Nicole White, founder of Moon Time Sisters

Back in Saskatoon, White has compiled a giant pile of pads, tampons, pain medication and even reusable menstrual supplies. She gets excited talking about how many people have donated and how she's working with a group in Regina, YOUR TIME women's empowerment foundation, to collect Diva Cups.

But the excitement drains when she thinks of permanent solutions. As a previous candidate for the provincial NDP, White said having more women in positions of leadership could help lead to change more quickly since tampons are less likely to be on the immediate radar of men.

"We want to build long-term capacity within those communities but in the meantime we are going to be leaving them with massive stockpiles of product," she said.

Lead image by Tamara Lynn/Moon Time Sisters Facebook

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