Fighting period poverty

Reader's Digest Editors

Katherine Laidlaw meets the Moon Time Sisters, who send free menstrual products to remote northern Canadian communities in need.

In many Indigenous cultures, “moon time” is considered sacred, a gift. The first time a young woman gets her period, her community holds a ceremony, and her mother, aunts and grandmothers teach her about what it means to become a woman.

Nicole White, a Metis woman from Saskatoon, Canada, learned of the rite of passage from an elder. “The tradition has fallen away a little bit due to colonisation,” she says, though some people are now returning to it. It’s fitting, then, that when White read about girls in northern Saskatchewan staying home from school because they didn’t have period supplies she tapped into her own circle of female friends. 

“People give food, but not menstrual products,” she says. “We think about women in developing countries going without them, but I hadn’t thought about our young girls.”

In January 2017, White assembled five care packages to send to commun­ities in need. She is used to looking for solutions to social problems: the 41-year-old had worked at AIDS Saskatoon, a non-profit that helps vulner­able populations with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. She’d also run for political office, as a federal NDP candidate. 

For a project like this, she knew she’d need people power. After ensuring her friends were on board, White called Georgina Jolibois, the member of parliament for northern Saskatchewan. Jolibois put her in touch with women working at schools, shelters and non-profits who could identify where supplies were needed most. 

What started as a few care packages has since turned into more than 258,000 boxes of tampons, packs of pads and menstrual cups being flown to schools, public health offices and homeless shelters in 25 communities, including La Ronge and La Loche.

In Moon Time Sisters’ two years of operation, its impact has been profound. White remembers one woman—a mother of three who was using socks as pads—bursting into tears when she received a box of tampons. 

Across the Canadian north, that box can cost up to £20, a prohibitive expense. The women Moon Time Sisters serves are largely Indigenous, and are part of the most impoverished group of people in Canada: one in four Indigenous adults, and four in 10 Indigenous children, live below the poverty line.

“I want people talking about menstruation, and I want people to have access to free products,” says White, who is currently completing her degree in Indigenous social work and caring for her 17-month-old daughter Alice. 

Each March, Moon Time Sisters runs a collection drive, with drop-off points in Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw and elsewhere. The Sisters’ mandate is simple: provide menstrual supplies to anyone who asks.

Close to 150 volunteers collect donations and send out packages of tampons, and disposal and cloth pads. (They also send menstrual cups, but because the cups need to be washed in potable water twice a day, and many reserves have poor water quality, those don’t work for everyone in need.)

In March 2017, inspired by the Saskatchewan initiative, a second chapter of the group launched in Toronto to service Ontario and later Quebec. White believes the organization will continue to grow, as long as there is a need, and volunteers and donors who will help meet it. And until Moon Time Sisters is big enough to have an office to call its own, White’s backyard shed in Saskatoon acts as HQ, housing the teetering stacks of tampon boxes and pads donated throughout the year.

“Sometimes change can be big. But sometimes it comes in the form of a tampon,” she says.

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