Menstruation is a part of life for more than half our population, yet it remains an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Changing the conversation to create better menstrual equity across Waterloo Region is the goal of Changing The Flow, a social enterprise founded by Kevin Hiebert and Kate Elliott in 2019.
Menstrual equity means ensuring people who menstruate have equal access to period products, ways to manage menstruation and opportunities for education around reproductive health. In a survey by Changing The Flow, 26 per cent of respondents in Waterloo Region said they struggled to find affordable period products.
Changing The Flow started with Hiebert and Elliott working together on a project to collect and distribute period products for people experiencing housing and financial difficulties.
“We came to realize how much more complicated and layered the problem is behind period poverty, which brought us to the broader issues of menstrual equity. Changing The Flow is our recognition that advocacy, awareness and implementation help was needed beyond just providing period products to people who need them,” Hiebert said.
Kate Elliott added that Changing The Flow was created to make period products available to those who need them now and to bring about policy change to end period poverty.
"Hopefully we continue to see more and more places start to provide products until it’s completely normal. Alongside this, we need to keep empowering people about their period and challenging the shame and stigma that runs so deep in most, if not all, societies.," Elliott said.
Today, Changing The Flow provides consulting services for organizations to help make period products available for anyone who needs them.
“We help organizations across the continuum of ‘What do you mean we should have period products available?’ to those who want to make them available and aren’t sure where to start,” Hiebert said.
Hiebert found inspiration for the consulting work during conversations with the City of Cambridge around making period products available in public washrooms.
“They considered a motion to make period products available, but it didn’t pass at first. Then, last December, they passed a budget motion to fund period products. From those interactions, we really saw a need to break down the systemic, ingrained barriers in how people think about the cultural stigmas, taboos and sexism around menstruation,” Hiebert said.
Many of the conversations focus on local governments and school boards, but Hiebert said that small businesses could also improve their customer experience by offering period products in their facilities. Any workplace can choose to provide period products, especially those where customers come in for more than just a few minutes.
“Think of places like chiropractic offices, dental clinics and massage therapists. If you’re there for a one-hour appointment, menstrual needs may come up. The business could offer period products and have a massive social impact or a massive impact on their clients. The business is getting all those benefits without doing anything more than just making products available,” Hiebert said.
Beyond workplaces and public facilities, improving menstrual equality in schools is also a focus of Changing The Flow. In their Menstruation in Waterloo Region: Insight Into Experiences, Attitudes, and Advancements report, 94 per cent of respondents said they had gotten their period at school when they were not prepared. Hiebert noted that the Waterloo Region District School Board was the first board in the province to make period products available in schools in 2019.
“The WRDSB has addressed period poverty in our school board since 2019. We did this because students who cannot afford menstrual products may experience a higher rate of absenteeism from school, challenges to engage fully in the classroom and negative health effects, such as infections and toxic shock syndrome. Period poverty also affects social and emotional well-being. Providing free products to students is one step towards menstrual equity, which will allow students to attend school without stigma or barriers,” a WRDSB spokesperson said.
COVID-related school closures have caused numerous issues for students, whether in access to food or period products. During the first closure in March 2020, Changing The Flow partnered with Nutrition for Learning to offer period packs to students in the public and Catholic school boards.
“Nutrition for Learning had the foresight to start organizing pop-ups to get nutritious food to kids. We reached out to them because we had been trying to figure out how we were going to get period products for people that need them when everything is shut down,” Hiebert said.
The organizations have continued to offer period packs during school closures in a campaign called Period Prepared WR. Hiebert said the program helps accomplish their goal of getting period products to people who need them while generating conversations around menstrual equality.
“It’s getting the awareness level back up in the community that this is still a problem,” Hiebert added.
Changing The Flow is a small organization working to make significant changes in our community. Co-founder Kate Elliott returned to England after completing her studies at the University of Waterloo in September, and she continues to support the organization’s mission. Hiebert said there are numerous opportunities for people to get involved.
“We’ve got a gazillion ideas in the pipe that we can’t execute on because we just don’t have the resources or the capacity with things like online learning programs, video editing, animation and marketing projects,” Hiebert said.
Hiebert is also looking for people who want to develop their leadership skills with a senior position with Changing The Flow, especially someone who can bring additional diversity to the organization and its volunteers.
“I really want to acknowledge that I’m place-holding here. My role is to use my privilege where it’s useful, but otherwise, step back and let others lead the push to achieve menstrual equity and end period poverty – starting in the region and eventually across Canada.”
You can learn more about how Changing The Flow works towards menstrual equality and their volunteer opportunities at changingtheflow.ca. On Friday, Jan. 14, Changing The Flow is hosting “Period. End Of Sentence.,” a virtual screening and book discussion with author Anita Diamant exploring the cultural roots of menstrual injustice which erodes self-esteem, limits opportunities and even threatens lives.