Schools are one of the first places to tackle period poverty. Shanti Mathias checks in with the Ministry of Education initiative launched a year ago to make period products available to New Zealand students.
In June 2021, period products became free for all New Zealand schools who opted in. The initiative was hailed as a world first, and covered by international outlets, including The New York Times, the Guardian and the BBC. In the year since the programme was implemented, more than 2000 state and state-integrated schools and kura have opted in to the initiative, which has distributed more than 600,000 packs of menstrual products to students around the country.
“Feedback to date has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Sean Teddy, leader of operations and integration at the Ministry of Education. He says principals have reported that the programme is “having a positive effect on removing barriers to attendance, engagement, and destigmatising menstruation”.
For Robyn Fausett of Nest Consulting, seeing the period products roll out into schools has been gratifying. Nest Consulting is one of Aotearoa’s largest providers of sexuality and health education in schools, and was involved in petitioning the government to make period products free in 2020, along with other companies and non-profits who work to decrease period poverty. Nest was also involved in evaluating a trial of the programme that was run in 15 Waikato schools later that same year.
“We asked students what they wanted, how it was working – we wanted to get a feel for the education available to students on the mechanics of a period, let alone the complex feelings around periods,” Fausett says.
After that initial trial period, how does she think the period products programme is going? “The uptake of the programme has been really good,” she says, though there are always improvements to be made. “Teachers are really busy, and this is a new programme, so there needs to be more guidance on how to manage distribution and advertising – do students know their schools have this?”
JJ, a year nine student in Christchurch, didn’t know about the free period product programme until I asked about it. “I usually go into the gender-neutral bathrooms but there are none in there,” they say. “It’s a real hassle if you get your period and you don’t have any products – they should be provided.” Like most menstruating students, JJ keeps products in their bag, just in case, and knows they could ask a friend or the school nurse for products if required. They think the free period products programme is a good idea but say that it needs to be better advertised in schools.
“I think the initiative will be hugely successful,” says Fausett. “It just needs some bedding in – and Covid hasn’t helped.”
Getting the logistics of period product distribution right is important for breaking down taboos around menstruation, says Danika Revell of The Period Place, who was also involved in campaigning for the policy. “I want to see everyone afforded the dignity of choosing which period products they want,” she says. While distribution may vary, many high schools now have a dispenser placed in bathrooms, so students can access products without having to ask.
Teddy says the dispensers are going to become more widespread; the priority is responding to what students want. “Students are getting involved in decision-making and delivery of the initiative, including organising information sessions for students, managing distribution and replenishing product in dispenser units,” he says.
Providing menstrual products can help normalise periods, Revell says, and not just in schools either. “It’s a body function and [period products] should be in every toilet outside the home. You don’t throw a roll of toilet paper in your bag when you go out, you expect it to be there.”
Fausett agrees. At the same time, however, she acknowledges that periods are still a personal thing, and students have a right to privacy when accessing products. “You want to destigmatise it and make it really visible but at the same time you don’t want students to feel uncomfortable either, to have the privacy they deserve.”
In the future, both Revell and Fausett would like to see more reusable period products, such as period-proof undies and menstrual cups, offered to schools. To do so would require being thoughtful about all aspects of a curriculum and the complex cultural norms around periods. Fausett offers swimming as an example. Uniform-mandated swimwear mean that menstruating students who don’t want to use internal products may be left out of classes. Making period-proof swimwear available would help with this.
These products are much more expensive, but they save money over time. Revell says that to assume school students aren’t interested in reusable products is dismissive, and reusable period products can decrease period poverty in the long term.
After all, programmes to tackle period poverty in schools are only the start. “There are about 350,000 students with periods in schools,” Revell says. “But there’s 1.5 million [New Zealanders] who menstruate.” It’s great to provide period products in school, but equity advocates can’t lose sight of the bigger picture – the next step is making free products available everywhere, for everyone. “That feeling of being caught out when the blood plops into your underwear is universal,” she says. “If a kid is experiencing period poverty, then we know that others in their whānau and community will be as well.”