“Food or tampons” isn’t a decision anyone should have to make
How the Period Purse is bringing health, hygiene and dignity to marginalized communities in the GTA
BY Daniela Payne
Imagine having to decide whether to spend what little money you have on something to eat, or a box of pads? It’s a choice many women and trans men experiencing homelessness must make monthly. Those who choose food often resort to homemade menstrual supplies, using everything from leaves and ripped up clothing to old newspapers. Many go without any form of protection at all.
To help tackle this issue, Jana Girdauskas launched The Period Purse in 2017. The Toronto-based grassroots organization now distributes menstrual products, discreetly packaged inside fashionable purses, to about 530 menstruators a month.
Girdauskas, a special needs teacher and mom of two young boys, didn’t start out with such a big vision. “What the Period Purse is now was never my intention,” she says. “I accidentally fell into it.”
Before that moment, I’d never thought about how people who don’t have a home deal with their periods every month.
One day on her drive to work, Girdauskas passed a woman panhandling at a stop light. She had nothing in her car to offer and wished she had some small items (like toothpaste, deodorant or an extra scarf) in a spare purse on hand that she could give to the woman.
That night, she was digging through her closet to gather some things to stow in her car for next time when she came across her pads and tampons. “Before that moment, I’d never thought about how people who don’t have a home deal with their periods every month,” she says.
When she talked about it with her family and friends, she learned that it had never occurred to them, either. “I love that part of The Period Purse: that it’s opening people’s minds and getting them to think about how women and trans men menstruate when they’re living on the street or in a shelter,” she says.
One woman experiencing homelessness whom Girdauskas met told her that if the shelter she was at had anything to give, it was one tampon for an entire cycle. She’s had to resort to using newspaper in place of proper, hygienic menstruation products, a practice that has caused several infections.
Kathleen O’Gorman, manager of engagement and development at Toronto’s United Way-supported Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, says that women in the community struggle with the logistics of menstruation—and the homemade products they use can be dangerous. “When you don’t have the quality of choice, you do what you absolutely must do. It’s about day-to-day survival,” she explains. “Women shouldn’t have to be put in that position.”
Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, which sometimes supports more than 100 women at a time, receives regular donations from The Period Purse. “It takes the stress off the women at the shelter and we do our utmost to make sure we have what they need,” O’Gorman says.
Since its inception, The Period Purse has handed out more than 3,000 purses filled with period products, hygiene items, necessities like underwear and socks, lip balm and a motivational note. The organization has expanded to seven additional cities across Ontario: London, Stratford, Brantford, Niagara Falls, Durham Region, Ottawa and Sault St. Marie. And they’ve just rolled out a high-school program called Menstruation Nation, where students can run blitzes to gather supplies and make up period packs. Girdauskas loves how this can help destigmatize the monthly cycle for young people. “These drives help them talk about it, see the products, and just make them feel comfortable. We help normalize that monthly situation,” she explains.
Girdauskas hopes The Period Purse will soon be ready to launch its newest initiative to help support an Indigenous community in northern Ontario. “There are teenagers there who don’t go to school while on their periods because they don’t have products—they’re cost prohibitive, at $40 to $60 a box,” she says.
The Period Purse has accomplished all of this in just 15 months. “It’s hard to believe this all came from one small idea of me having one purse in my car, to it really resonating and growing quickly in Toronto and beyond,” Girdauskas says. And while she acknowledges that a tampon is just a drop in the bucket, she knows it will make a difference to someone’s life. “It gives them a little dignity back, helps them with their menstrual health, and also lets them know that people in the community are caring and thinking about them.”