The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of our lives. From job insecurity to not being able to see loved ones, this past year has substantially changed the way we live, act, and feel. Most of us have never felt more grateful to have a roof over our heads or enough money to buy groceries. However, many women still struggle to afford basic necessities, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this situation.
Annalise Trudell, the Manager of Education, Training and Research at Anova (the product of a merger between London’s Women’s Community House and Sexual Assault Centre in London, Ontario), recalled that when the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting hard in the months of April and May, donations from the public were forced to shut down. The shelter had a stockpile of whatever was left or they had to purchase most products for their care packages out of pocket. Accessibility to these products weren’t always guaranteed and safe - for example, the women who didn’t use Anova’s overnight shelter had less access to these products.
Kathryn Glancy, the Fund Development Officer at Sistering - a women’s shelter in Toronto whose mission is to create a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental space for women and trans people - expressed a common concern that many people had: a lack of access to washrooms throughout the city. Most, if not all, public washrooms closed down or reduced their hours, and multiple businesses across the city no longer allow washroom usage or have stopped in-person services altogether. This in turn has resulted in fewer spaces for folks to access menstrual hygiene products. Glancy reflected, “Considering many of our participants are without housing, they do not have private spaces to access washrooms. This puts pressure on the few social services and community centers that do provide washroom access, as well as limits spaces in the city these participants can navigate due to washroom restrictions.” Additionally, as businesses mandated wearing masks inside all indoor shopping areas, participants who had not yet gotten masks might not be able to buy these products in-store due to a lack of PPE. Thankfully, donations were overflowing during the most difficult time at Sistering, but Glancy noted that many new or infrequent participants who hadn't accessed their services often mentioned this as a challenge.
Not only has the COVID-19 had a severe effect on period product accessibility and menstrual hygiene, many women have been affected in other ways. Trudell has first-handedly witnessed the decline in women’s mental health stability since the pandemic first started. Most women at Anova use the shelter to find a safe space, often escaping from violent domestic abuse situations. When the pandemic was at its all-time worst, women who typically stayed at Anova for longer periods of time were relocated to hotel rooms to maximize safe social distancing. However, this minimized the opportunity for these women to have face-to-face support with the Anova team, with isolation also bringing about negative impacts for post-trauma reactions. Furthermore, COVID-19 has resulted in higher unemployment rates (especially during lockdown and quarantine) and consequently many job losses across the province and country. In turn, this has forced some women to rely on the men in their household for income, regardless of their domestic situation. Thus, requests to enter the shelter have increased, placing a newfound pressure on both Anova staff and residents.
Not only has face-to-face interactions become increasingly difficult for some women during these difficult times, the inability to purchase essential items can also affect many individuals’ mental health and self esteem. Trudell recalls how often women feel embarrassed about their circumstances, which affects their ability to engage in other activities - including reaching out to ask for help and support when needed.
During the summer when facilities began to open again, people had more freedom to access services around the city. There was higher washroom availability - although they were still highly restricted. For example, the stores that do allow customers to use facilities require customers to have purchased something already. Glancy noted that because of this, “gift cards (like to McDonalds or Tim Hortons) are actually a really important resource for maintaining menstrual hygiene. Having a gift card to one of these businesses does not just provide participants with access to a meal - this also means washroom access. In a COVID world where facilities are highly restricted, gift cards give a whole lot more than just the dollar amount.”
Unfortunately, cases are reaching an all-time high again, especially in Ontario. With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating to its worst, we can only hope that the women affected can access the proper support and resources to undergo these difficult circumstances once again. Want to know how you can help, especially in light of COVID-19 cases rising again? Donate to these charitable organizations, get involved in the community, and spread awareness about this issue.