Let's make Period Poverty a thing of the past

Access to education should not be determined by a child’s gender, yet almost a quarter of New Zealand women have missed school or work because they have been unable to afford sanitary items.

When it comes to menstruation, there is shame, fear, and embarrassment - all can disrupt an individual's ability to participate fully in life.

Period poverty, in Aotearoa New Zealand, could be solved easily with the following solutions and interventions:

The NZ Government funds free sanitary products for school age girls and young women

After coming up with a robust and evidenced-based scheme, the Scottish government funded free sanitary products for students at schools, colleges and universities in August last year. This year, the governments of England, Wales, and BC, Canada made similar announcements. 

Providing free sanitary products to students attending schools supports the equality, dignity and rights for those who menstruate and ensures that lack of access to products doesn’t impact on a student’s ability to fully participate in education at all levels. It also saves students (and their families) money and sends a strong message to all students that menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of.

 

Currently in New Zealand there are organisations and charities providing sanitary products to schools throughout NZ, mostly low decile. KidsCan, Dignity NZ, and SPINZ are vocal in their support of government funded sanitary products in all NZ schools. Collectively they have the supplier relationships and nationwide distribution networks to make it work. Couple this with the learnings from Scotland et al and it appears we have an easy fix.

PHARMAC subsidises the cost of sanitary products

Subsidised sanitary products would bring the price down which addresses one of the main drivers of period poverty. 

Pharmac rejected an application asking it to cut the cost of sanitary products in 2017. The government funded drug-buying agency found menstruation was a "normal function" and that sanitary products were not medicines or medical devices. 

Pharmac is being inflexible on this point. A very strong case for sanitary products being therapeutic or meeting a health need can be made, as young women who cannot afford the products are contracting serious infections because they are reusing sanitary pads and tampons. This in turn affects their future, their future ability to have children, to be well and not be weighed down by illness.

The University of Otago’s Dr Sarah Donovan and YWCA Auckland are submitting another application to Pharmac this year which will include recent survey results building an even stronger case.

Period destigmatisation and robust period education

The stigma around periods reinforces the problem of period poverty. This stigma makes it hard for a 13 year old to explain a sudden need to go to the toilet with “miss, I’m on my period”, or for someone to convey that they need pain medication to deal with menstruation. And it makes it hard for campaigners to be received warmly when they demand that period products should be more accessible.

Being discouraged from talking about menstruation has serious consequences — not only does it unnecessarily shame menstruating people for something that's totally natural, but it also can negatively impact their physical and mental health, too. Open discussion is necessary to foster understanding and acceptance, so if we don't feel comfortable talking about menstruation, how can we truly come to understand, respect, and care for our bodies?

The most effective way of breaking the menstrual taboo is education and it has to start at an early age. Nearly half of all girls and trans boys in New Zealand have started menstruation before they start secondary school and 1,900 of these girls are of primary school age. It is most likely that menstruation and pubertal change education is not happening at primary school. We need to target health education, resources and support to an even younger age group in order for NZ girls and trans boys to be prepared to manage their periods without disruption to their schooling and without embarrassment. It’s is also important that period education be taught to all genders together. Separating genders adds to the air of secrecy about menstruation and we need men and boys to be menstruation champions too.

What we need is the political will and public support to make this change. So who’s with us?

Download and read our Period Poverty report here