Hailey Morton (HEJSupport) sat down with Jana Girdauskas, Founder and Education Manager at The Period Purse, to speak about her work with the organization. The Period Purse strives to achieve menstrual equity by providing people on the margins who menstruate with access to free menstrual products, and to reduce the stigma surrounding periods through public education and advocacy.
*Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Hailey Morton: Please tell me a little bit about your organization and the work that you do.
Jana Girdauskas: So, the Period Purse is a registered charity in Canada, and the only one to deal with menstrual equity. And we strive to help that menstrual equity and period poverty space in Canada, but also through education and advocacy, trying to reduce stigma around periods. So we have three pillars in our charity. It’s all volunteer-run, which is very impressive, because people really are passionate about periods, and period poverty, and reducing the stigma. So we get a lot of work that way – a lot of people giving their time for it. So we have an outreach programme, where we get donated pads and tampons from the community, and those get packed up and delivered out to community partners – whether it’s shelters or healthcare centres or safe injection sites, or anywhere where people living on the margins would go and need free products. And then we have our education piece, which really deals with teens from 12-18. And actually, this fall, we stretched that to post-secondary [students]. And they will do drives to collect period products as well – they might start a “Menstruation Nation,” [as] we call it, and they talk about periods, or learn about reusable products. And later on this year [or in] January, depending on how fast we can do things, we’ll be getting out some virtual presentations that groups can have, [centred] around periods, period poverty, and reusable period products. And then our last pillar is that advocacy piece, where we’re trying to make lasting policy changes, whether it be in workplaces or schools, or with governments in making changes into their budget. So that’s it in a broad sense of what The Period Purse does, and where we have grown in just three and a half years. So we’re a young, grassroots group that has turned into a charity, and pretty proud of that we’re all volunteers.
HM: My next question is about menstrual equity. And so I’m wondering how you personally would define menstrual equity?
JG: That’s a good question. I really need to memorize a good answer for this. So, menstrual equity I think has really stemmed out of period poverty [in terms of] where Period Purse has started. I think of menstrual equity as an onion, with so many different layers. So as we started just handing out pads and tampons, we realized that people in seats of policy changes didn’t know about [period poverty], and education needed to happen. Or the stigma around periods – they didn’t want to talk about it. Men didn’t think it was a problem, privileged women who could always afford pads and tampons didn’t think it was a problem. So, menstrual equity has, I feel, period poverty in the middle of that onion. And then it grows to people who menstruate, that is an unequitable position that we’re put in of having to pay for it. Other things [are] free, like toilet paper and soap, but not pads and tampons. And why is that? It’s because of the gender inequality that has happened in the last… for 100 years, right? And people who are at decision-making tables, when they said “Sure, of course we’re going to pay for toilet paper in our bathrooms,” but they were men, so they never thought about pads and tampons and periods. So it’s many layers of inequality that people who menstruate really have to deal with [in terms of] menstrual equity. The person who coined that term is Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, she’s a lawyer down in the United States, and she has spearheaded the menstrual equity movement. She wrote a book and some great resources and articles about menstrual equity, [about] how it’s so much more than just period poverty.
HM: Following up on that question about menstrual equity. I see a lot of this discussion about how sustainable menstruation fits within menstrual equity because the truth is that sustainable menstrual products and reusable menstrual products can be more expensive in the short term. But I do see that in your ‘Period Presentations Educational Initiative’, one of the topics is reusable period products. So I was wondering what you think the value of sustainable menstruation is, and how does that fit into efforts to achieve menstrual equity?
JG: In general, I think it is about education about our periods and the different options we have: it isn’t just pads and tampons. So, that goes for “Let’s reduce the stigma, let’s talk about periods more, let’s know more about it.” We created that presentation for young people, [around ages] 12-22, because what we’re finding is that their parents, [who are in their] 40s and 50s, have never used the cup, or period underwear, or cloth pads. So they can’t teach their children who menstruate about it, and they also just supply what they use for them under their bathroom sink. Everyone has their one brand, their one kind of period product they like, so when the parents don’t know about it and they don’t use it, they aren’t teaching the young people in their house about reusable products. So we see that these young people don’t really have any information, nobody’s talking to them about it. But now they’re hearing about it – especially period underwear, [which] has really made an explosion in the last two years – and people have heard about it, but they don’t really have all the questions, and they don’t know who to ask for the answers. And then this generation is so much more passionate about the environment. They really get that, “Oh yeah, a menstrual cup really does make sense, because I’m not going to be throwing out garbage every month.” We’re taking that opportunity of reducing the stigma around periods [and] giving them more knowledge about their choices. Because a menstrual cup isn’t for everyone, but at least they have the knowledge to pick what is best for them.
HM: That’s a great point, because until I was inundated in this field, I really didn’t know about the plethora of available options out there. And there really is a lot when you know more, right?
JG: Yeah, it’s like, here’s the menu, which one do you want? And what works for me and what I like isn’t gonna be [the same for everyone]. It’s the same with pads and tampons. Whatever brand I liked wasn’t the same as my cousin or my friend, or whatever. It’s just giving them all the knowledge so they can make the best decision. And sometimes it also changes with age. A grade 8 student who has just got their period isn’t usually going to pick a tampon or menstrual cup, just because of the insertion. But come 16, 17, they’re okay with that. And if they have the knowledge of, “This is how a menstrual cup works,” then hopefully, they’ll be able to pick that when they feel comfortable with it. We’re really passionate about educating the young people, because that’s where change is going to happen. I love reusable products. I’ve been a cup user [for] 18 years, before anyone knew what it was.
HM: What inspired you to start this organization?
JG: It was just one small event that sparked the idea. I was driving into work one day, and at a red light someone was panhandling at my window. And I didn’t have anything for them, but it made me think, before the light went green, that I could have a package in my car to be able to give to them next time. And that night, when I went home to collect a toothbrush, and some soap, and whatever extra was in my linen closet, it’s where I saw my period products, and I had that “Aha” moment. Because I [had] never thought about period poverty before, and what people do on their period when they’re experiencing homelessness. Because I have been privileged enough to always be able to afford my products easily, and that’s never been a question in my head. So that was a huge ‘Aha’ moment, and I wanted to make a few little purses for my car, and that turned into 300 really quickly, and now we’re over 40,000 in three and a half years. Yeah, it’s definitely accidental, I’m an accidental founder of a charity. But it’s pretty great how it happened.
HM: This organization is obviously very impressive and does a lot of great work, so my final question is: How can people get involved and support your organization, beyond donating menstrual products?
JG: So I would suggest people sign up for our newsletter [so they can] see and hear what’s upcoming. Social media – we’re on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram – is always great too. Even if they can’t donate products, they can share our posts. Because that makes a really big difference – sharing our videos or posts, or helping spread the word that way. And if they can afford it, we have a ‘Sponsor a Menstruator’ program, which is $12. Someone can donate $12, and that would equal one month’s period products for somebody.
HM: And I see that you have several chapters now across Ontario and I think beyond as well. Do you encourage people to start a chapter if they don’t have one in their area?
JG: Yeah, if they don’t have one in their area they can start a chapter. It can just be [a] small [chapter] of one person, and we help put it online. Obviously with COVID, we’ve moved online. People can start a mini-drive, that’s on our website too. It’s under ‘Get Involved,’ ‘Volunteer,’ and ‘Mini Drive’. And people can ask all their friends for $12. Maybe they have the goal of, “I want to support someone for one year,” so they get themself and eleven friends, and everyone donates $12. So that’s an online team fundraiser we’ve created in the COVID times.
HM: That’s amazing. I’m so impressed with all of the work your organization does. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.