Ending period poverty in remote Indigenous communities in British Columbia is a big goal to have, but it’s one that two young Metro Vancouver women have set out to achieve, one menstrual product at a time.
From her North Vancouver bedroom, Carly Pistawka has been busy organizing a spring drive to collect period products for women in First Nations communities in Northern and Coastal B.C., where products are often more expensive due to transportation costs.
The 21-year-old was inspired by the work of Nicole White, a Métis woman from Saskatoon, Sask., who started the Moon Time Sisters project in 2017 as a way to support Indigenous women and girls living in northern and remote communities by providing menstrual products they otherwise may not be able to afford.
Since then, the volunteer-led organization, which is a project of charity True North Aid, has also expanded to Ontario and has been able to support over 25 communities.
Now there’s a new MTS chapter in B.C. thanks to the efforts of Pistawka and her newfound friend Neha Menon, 17, from Port Moody, who reached out to the organization around the same time with the same goal in mind.
“I found out about this back in September, October and I immediately was like ‘oh my gosh I need to be involved,’” Pistawka told North Shore News.
“I knew that period poverty existed in Africa and parts of India, you know, in countries that I don't necessarily associate with, and to hear that this was such a major problem in Canada and it wasn't actually being talked about very much was kind of appalling for me.”
Pistawka said she reached out to friends that live in Northern B.C. to ask if communities were struggling with the price of menstrual products and after receiving confirmation, she knew there was something she could do.
Pistawka joined forces with Menon, and they worked with MTS to make the B.C. chapter a reality late last year. The duo has since held a couple of smaller drives, but have really kicked off the chapter with their spring drive, which they started about a month ago.
“We did a drive in November and one in December and these were relatively small and they were for isolated Northern B.C. communities with 100 to 200 women,” Pistawka explained, adding that MTS didn’t publicly reveal the communities they help to respect their privacy.
She said since starting they had found that in some communities it could be “up to $18 to $20 for a package of products, or three-to-five times the cost that you normally find in Vancouver.”
“Any woman can relate to the fact that they have to buy period products,” Pistawka said. “We're lucky in the Greater Vancouver area where a lot of schools offer free products through the BC Period Promise, but from what I've heard from communities, they don't necessarily receive the funding to provide free products just because of the price disparities.”
On top of expensive menstrual products, she said some communities, across Canada, were also facing high costs for food and bottled water, which further compounded the issue.
“When you have everyday expenses you likely have to choose between food and water, or a period product … and you're not going to want to go to school and go to work if you don't have those products,” she said. “That’s what was happening in a lot of communities with a lack of product.”
The University of B.C. student, who is studying biotechnology but has also taken an interest in Indigenous studies, said it was important to be cautious of the of the idea of “superiority” and the goal was not just to give products to communities but to support them in an inequity situation.
“Our goal is to promote the power and solidarity of women living in northern Indigenous communities,” she explained.
“It's a very western culture style to feel like we can donate anything to communities, and they'll appreciate it. With menstrual products, you obviously only want to send products that people will actually use.
“There are maxi pads out there that are bigger than diapers and they're just sandpapery and they're not things that you want to send to people.”
Pistawka said before sending any products they connected with the communities through their health centres or their schools to have discussions about what they needed.
“We found that small pads are generally the best, because they are the most commonly used, and then obviously tampons are the next on the list,” she said. “We try and give a few months supply to each woman.”
She said while it had been difficult to raise awareness of the spring drive and collect products during the pandemic, people had responded positively through online monetary donations, also highlighting that they had recently received a $10,000 donation to the B.C. chapter.
“It's really amazing that someone donated such a large amount for such a new non-profit,” Pistawka said. “We can then allocate whether it goes towards products or shipping, because shipping costs are absolutely crazy.”
The young period poverty activist said it had been an amazing journey so far and she couldn’t wait to see the results from the spring drive.
“When I was doing my first drive I was contacted by multiple people and just to hear the support of other women really lights a fire in me and I just become more and more passionate about it, because you know you're supported, and you know that it's helping a real problem,” Pistawka said.
“It's been nice to have a project that I feel like, while I'm at home during COVID, I’m still making a difference in the world.”
Looking to the future, Pistawka said she hoped more people would get involved in the cause and help grow the B.C. MTS Chapter.
Go to Moon Time Sisters BC to find out ways to get involved or how to donate to the Spring Drive, running until March 30.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.