Ryerson student to be first-ever recipient of Canada’s Hero Award

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By Stacey Nguyen

A Ryerson graduate student was awarded the first-ever Canada’s Hero Award—a prize from international advocacy organization Global Citizen celebrating advocates around the world—for her work in making sanitary products and menstrual education accessible.

Yanique Brandford, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in biomedical physics at Ryerson, is the founder of Help a Girl Out (HAGO).

HAGO is a non-profit organization fighting against period poverty, which is defined as the lack of access to essential menstrual supplies and education. The organization is pushing to have free menstrual supplies available in all schools and workplaces across Canada, mandatory menstrual education for girls as young as 11 years old and a support network for those suffering from uterine illnesses.

Brandford said winning the award took her completely by surprise. While she said being nominated and winning the prize was a huge honour, she also said she feels a “great sense of duty to use this recognition and bring the issue of period poverty to the forefront of Canadian discourse.” 

Brandford began HAGO in 2018, motivated by her experience with period poverty for most of her life.

“Growing up in the island of Jamaica, access to essential products, such as sanitary pads, were a luxury,” Brandford wrote on HAGO’s website. “This led to us using other methods such as paper, cardboard, plastic and a range of means to satisfy our needs.”

After she came to Canada and experienced period poverty as an undergraduate student at Ryerson, she realized period poverty was a global issue. 

“I remember trying to get supplies from the dispensers and found that they were all empty. I didn’t have enough money to buy an entire pack of napkins at the drugstore, so I had to ask around,” she said. Because of the unpredictability of menstrual cycles, Brandford said not everyone can afford menstrual supplies regularly.

“Seeing this happen not only in a developing country like Jamaica, where I grew up, but also here in Canada, broke my heart,” she said. “I aspire to be the advocate that I needed as a young girl experiencing these things.”

Period poverty is prevalent among low-income students, according to Brandford. According to a study conducted by Plan International Canada, one in three Canadian women under the age of 25 struggle to afford menstrual products. 

Looking at that statistic, Brandford said the Ryerson community would greatly benefit from free menstrual products on campus. 

“The shelters in Toronto and the Toronto District School Board have already taken steps to do this. I believe Ryerson should also lead by example, and other colleges and universities will follow.”

HAGO has been active on Ryerson’s campus in the past through initiatives run by the Centre for Safer Sex and Sexual Violence Support (C3SVS). In 2019, Brandford joined forces with C3SVS to run the campaign Eliminate Period Poverty and Ace Your Exams.  The campaign handed out menstrual products and was held in the middle of the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre (SLC) amphitheatre to confront the stigma around menstruation. 

Part of HAGO’s mission is to encourage open and honest conversations around menstruation in an effort to combat “menstrual shame,” which Brandford said can vary between cultures. 

“Some are shunned, some are silenced, some are ridiculed. All of this affects their mental, physical and emotional health, and fuels poverty because it prevents and discourages victims from seeking help,” said Brandford.

Neha Prasher, a HAGO volunteer and recent Ryerson medical physics graduate, assists the non-profit organization with social media campaigns and spreading information about events and donation drives. Similar to Brandford, Prasher recognized the lack of menstrual resources available for low-income and homeless individuals going to school in downtown Toronto. 

“Yanique and I often had discussions about this issue along with the lack of availability of period products,” said Prasher.

Watching HAGO grow from its initial inception, Prasher said it has been “truly inspiring.”

“Being a part of the HAGO team has inspired me to do more for my community,” said Prasher. “I have become more vocal about issues that I find are important and support them in any way I can, whether that be through donations or social media awareness.”

The international advocacy organization’s Country Hero Award is a new category for the 2020 Global Citizen Prize that recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to global goals and advocating for the most vulnerable. The prize is awarded in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia and Mexico. 

$10,000 is awarded to the recipient to help support their projects.

Brandford said she plans to use the money to carry out various projects that will support HAGO in reaching a wider audience to raise awareness. These projects include hosting educational workshops, creating reusable sanitary napkins, delivering menstrual kits to recipients across Ontario, and a service for students to text for help and receive menstrual kits from designated pick up points.

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