It gives young girls a glimpse into government — and a vote of confidence that they can make a difference.
As part of the Girls Government group at Toronto’s Parkdale Public School, Grade 8 students met regularly with their local MPP Bhutila Karpoche, deciding to focus on the issue of “period poverty” and push for access to free menstrual products in public places.
“It relates to all of us, we are all at that age that it happens and it’s very relevant” given other jurisdictions, including the school board in Waterloo, are making pads and tampons available, said 14-year-old Courtney Powers, a Parkdale student who spoke to the Star before school ended in June.
“At the start we were more apprehensive to talk about it … but what’s part of the program is (to learn to) speak confidently about what we want to say,” said Courtney, who is heading to Harbord Collegiate this fall.
“As the program went on, we became more confident.”
The Girls Government program began in 2008 and was founded by former NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who retired from politics in 2017 and is now leading Trinity-St. Paul’s parish in Toronto. The provincial program, which is non-partisan and has involved MPPs from all parties, is designed to boost girls’ interest in politics.
Before becoming the MPP for Parkdale-High Park, Karpoche worked in DiNovo’s office and ran — and expanded — the girls program in the riding.
“I always enjoy the process of meeting them for the first time, when they are not so sure about things,” Karpoche said. “By the end of the program, you see so much growth.”
During her 2018 election campaign, Karpoche would knock on doors and run into students she’d worked with, including one who went on to head her university student government.
“It’s just so good to see,” said Karpoche. “Even if they don’t pursue political office, they are still plugged in and active in so many ways.”
The girls are typically reluctant at first, “but once they get into it and learn how government works and how to push an issue forward, they have the power to bring about change and that is quite exciting for them.”
The Parkdale girls met with Karpoche monthly and researched and debated their issue, wrote letters to politicians, held a press conference in April at Queen’s Park and met with Health Minister Christine Elliott, urging her to take up their cause. They later visited Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
In May, Karpoche put forward a private member’s bill she and the group, with the help of community partners, put together declaring May 28 “Menstrual Hygiene Day in Ontario.”
Parkdale student Zoe King said the group learned about government and how it works.
“As young girls, we don’t get our voices heard enough,” added Grade 8 student Ava Nelson-Balda. “We all go through the same struggles with this issue (period) and it’s great to see it come to light, finally.”
“Personally, I am interested in politics and am looking at a career in broadcasting, so I thought it was a good opportunity,” said Courtney. “We learned how to think about (an issue) and critically look at what we were trying to do.”
DiNovo started the program more than a decade ago, concerned about the low numbers of women in politics. And things are changing — in last June’s election, a record-breaking number of female MPPs were voted in to 49 of 124 ridings, or almost 40 per cent.
The affordability of menstrual products is part of a larger national debate. In British Columbia schools have them available for free, and in Ontario the Waterloo public board will be the first to do offer pads and tampons in all schools and education centres after seeing that almost 90 per cent of students either couldn’t afford or didn’t always have such products when they needed them.
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Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy