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Some may have been surprised to see interest from overseas media in the Government’s decision to introduce a national programme providing free menstrual products to school pupils.
The issue of what has become known as ‘‘period poverty’’, where women or girls cannot afford to buy menstrual products and so avoid participating in their usual activities, is unlikely to be a new problem but increasingly it is getting attention here and elsewhere.
Scotland has been a step ahead of other countries, announcing a programme offering free menstrual products to those attending schools, colleges, and universities in 2018. Then, in November last year, it announced it would extend the free products to all those who needed them.
In New Zealand, pressure has been mounting in recent years for the Government to address this issue, after a series of surveys and university research indicated the extent of the problem.
A major concern was the estimated one in 12 pupils who reported missing school when they were menstruating because of lack of access to period products.
When they could not afford menstrual products, young women resorted to using toilet paper, old rags, cloths and nappies.
Unsurprisingly, those most affected were those more likely to be living in poverty, with Maori and Pasifika pupils over-represented.
The Government has taken a sensible and thoughtful approach to this, trialling a programme in the Waikato at 15 schools and kura last year, which reached 3200 pupils. It worked closely with a variety of groups, including charities who had been addressing this need, and young people themselves, to get to grips with what would work best.
The feedback from the trial has been described as overwhelmingly positive and schools have also seen a shift in culture reducing the stigma around menstruation, something which is surely long overdue. The pilot programme also showed there was a need for better information about menstruation and period products and the practicality of managing menstruation.
It is expected extending the programme across all primary, intermediate schools and secondary schools on an opt-in basis will cost about $25million over three years.
Schools which opt in by the end of this month will receive products from the end of the second term this year. If schools choose to opt in later than this, they will be included in later stages of the roll-out.
The scheme will offer a choice of pads or tampons initially and the Ministry of Education says as the initiative develops it will explore supporting the use of sustainable products such as reusable menstrual cups and period underwear, alongside educating students about these.
It was considered that while these products could be more environmentally friendly, they were not always suitable for the age range and cultural diversity of young people in schools.
We hope this sustainability issue is not lost sight of. The use and availability of reusable products may help alleviate future period poverty as young women leave school and head to future study or work.
Period poverty, of course, will not be limited to school-aged women. Not-for-profit organisation Dignity NZ has been providing a variety of free menstrual products to organisations around the country including Dunedin Public Libraries which offers packs for women in need of urgent supplies.
At this stage there has been no indication the Government intends to go as far as Scotland making products available free across the board.
It could be argued that if all incomes were adequate, none of these measures would be needed.
In the absence of that adequacy, however, the schools’ programme should at least reduce period truancy which must be worthwhile.