Earlier this year, the British Columbia government made history by imposing a
ministerial order that requires all public schools to provide free menstrual products in school washrooms.
This is the first order of its kind in Canada.
The rationale behind the order is solid. There are numerous students in public schools in British Columbia who lose out on their education due to not having access to menstrual products. This allows them to overcome barriers to education imposed by poverty, a lack of resources at home, or simply forgetting or not having available menstrual products while at school. It allows young women to focus on learning and not the worry that they may get their period and have to leave school, not to return for several days.
Manufacturers of menstrual products are supportive, and have offered their
products as a discount while the pilot project is underway. Again, this is a laudable action by our government designed to end the period poverty that many women face.
But there is one provincially-run public space where this issue has been woefully
overlooked: British Columbia courthouses. The provincial government should be making menstrual products available, for free, in the washrooms of its courthouses.
There is good reason for this. First of all, courthouses are public spaces that are generally frequented by marginalized members of society. One need spend no more than a few minutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court or at 222 Main Street to see the way that poverty brings people into the justice system.
Secondly, people who attend courthouses are often compelled to be there. Anyone facing a criminal charge is legally obligated to attend court, and if they do not attend a warrant may be issued for their arrest. But for a woman or trans person who is menstruating and does not have access to feminine hygiene products that task may simply be impossible.
After all, there’s no calling in “on your period” and skipping your court appearance.
The result is that for women and trans people charged with criminal offences and
required to come to court, missing a court appearance due to the inability to manage menstrual hygiene my result in that woman becoming more deeply entrenched in the criminal justice system. In turn, this only increases the likelihood that period poverty will continue to negatively impact them.
But it’s not just women and trans people facing criminal charges who are affected by this.
Marginalized individuals, particularly those in poverty, are also frequently victims of crime. They are then required to attend court as witnesses, to attend pre-trial interviews with Crown Counsel, and to testify in trials. No person should have to face a choice between testifying against a person who perpetrated a crime against them and their menstrual hygiene. Courthouses should provide access to free menstrual products to decrease the likelihood that criminal prosecutions are not successful due to absent witnesses for these concerns.
And then there are the people who access our courts for reasons unrelated to criminal law: those pursuing or defending civil claims, or those who are involved in family litigation. Many family law and civil law litigants are self represented, often due to financial barriers to obtaining counsel. They should not also have to face the financial barrier of feminine hygiene that keeps them from being able to attend court.
The investment the government would have to make to fulfill this is very small compared to providing menstrual products in schools. There are 89 courthouse locations in British Columbia. Of those, only 43 are regularly staffed and open to the public on all business days. The remaining 49 are circuit courts which sit infrequently, some as infrequently as every three months.
The investment required to provide feminine hygiene products in those courthouses will be minimal. But the benefits to women and trans people who face issues of period poverty will be great. Having one’s period should not have to become an access to justice issue.