New Zealand to provide free sanitary products in schools to fight period poverty

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern speaks during a New Zealand COVID-19 update at Parliament on May 26, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

The New Zealand government said Wednesday that it will provide free sanitary products in schools across the country in an effort to tackle period poverty -- where girls or women are unable to afford or access sufficient menstrual hygiene products.

Nearly 95,000 girls in the country aged nine to 18 are thought to stay home from school during their periods due to not being able to afford pads and tampons, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.

"By making them freely available, we support these young people to continue learning at school," Ardern said.

The New Zealand government is investing NZ$2.6 million ($1.7 million) in the initiative, which will be first rolled out at 15 schools in the Waikato region of the country's North Island during term three of this year. The program will then expand nationwide to all state schools by 2021.

Period poverty is often seen as a problem confined to developing countries.

But several studies have exposed that period poverty impacts millions of people in the world's richest nations, including the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand.

A health and well-being survey from New Zealand-based Youth19 found 12% of students in Year 9 to 13 (ages 12 to 18) who menstruate reported difficulty accessing sanitary products due to affordability. And around one in 12 students reported having missed school due to lack of access to sanitary products.

"Menstruation is a fact of life for half the population and access to these products is a necessity, not a luxury," said New Zealand's Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter.

Unable to afford or access sanitary products or manage basic menstrual hygiene, girls across the world instead resort to using rags, old clothes, newspapers, hay, sand, or even ash, according to Unicef and other aid organizations.

"When you, through no fault of your own, don't have access to basic human needs, that really impacts how you see yourself, it erodes your sense of worth, your sense of self, your sense of mana (essence or spiritual power in Maori)," Caro Atkinson, a counsellor at the He Huarahi Tamariki school in the New Zealand capital Wellington, said in a statement.

Ardern said that the initiative is part of a wider effort to reduce child poverty in the country.

"Our plan to halve child poverty in 10 years is making a difference but there is more to do and with families hit hard by the Covid-19 global pandemic, it's important to increase that support in the areas it can make an immediate difference," she said.

Dignity, an NGO that works to provide period products for those in need, said it was "ecstatic with the government's commitment" but that this was just the start to eradicating period poverty.

"It's a fantastic investment from our government. However, this is just the beginning. Period poverty doesn't just affect students. It's a subset of poverty, and many other groups, like those experiencing homelessness and income loss, deeply feel the implications from a lack of access to products," said Dignity co-founder Miranda Hitchings.

New Zealand is not alone. Last year, England announced it would provide free sanitary products to high school students, and in February, the Scottish parliament advanced legislation that aims to ensure free universal access to menstrual hygiene products through the Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill.

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