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Worrying number of students missing school due to lack of sanitary products, study finds

A new study has found a worrying amount of students are missing school due to lack of access to sanitary products.

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Researchers examined how period poverty relates to missed school. Source: 1 NEWS

The Youth 19 study, conducted by four New Zealand universities, is one of the first of its kind in the world, and found more than 21 per cent of students in New Zealand's poorest schools had missed school due to lack of access to sanitary products.

Co-lead author from Victoria University, Dr Theresa Fleming, told 1 NEWS it's the most rigorous data that's ever been collected about period poverty in New Zealand, and one of the only nationally representative surveys in the world on the subject.

It found that in decile one schools, more than 21 per cent of students who had their period had missed school due to lack of menstrual products, with 14 per cent missing more than one day a month.

Māori and Pacific students were most affected, with almost one in 12 missing class once a month or more because they didn't have the products they needed.

More than 7700 students in Auckland, Northland and Waikato schools were surveyed. 

Dr Fleming says the survey is nationally representative because students were randomly selected, those areas are the most ethnically diverse the country, and half of New Zealand's young people live in those regions.

The study showed young people were missing out on a large amount of schooling, she says.

"That is a big deal in terms of educational equity and chances for young people today", she says.

"It's a really difficult thing for teachers, it's really difficult for schools and that's going to really be holding those girls back."

School counsellor at He Huarahi Tamariki School, Caro Atkinson, says she's been working in schools for 30 years but has seen the issue of period poverty get steadily worse over the last decade.

"I've known some young women who've missed three, four, five days in a row," she told 1 NEWS.

She says she's seen students forced to use alternative means like toilet paper and rags, which had a serious impact on their mental health.

"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."

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The PM said she is personally looking into it. Source: 1 NEWS

Students at He Huarahi Tamariki School are supplied with free sanitary products through a partnership with charity Dignity NZ, but students 1 NEWS spoke to said they had all skipped school in the past because they didn't have pads or tampons.

Hinehou Mason says the first time she got her period at school, she asked school staff if they had sanitary products but they didn't. 

"I had to go to the bathroom and wrap up toilet paper and use that as a pad… I wanted to cry, I wanted to curl up and cry go home to my mum, but I didn't want to tell my mum because I was embarrassed." 

Another student, Moana Parata, says she also struggled to access sanitary products when she first got her period at the age of 13 because of stigma. 

"I wouldn't tell my stepfather or my mum, so I would go out of my way to get those things," she told 1 NEWS.

"I felt shame doing that... He was the man of the house with the money and all that."

The Government has promised action on the issue of period poverty, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying it's a personal priority for her.

Charities campaigning for free sanitary products in schools as well as researchers met with Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter late this afternoon to discuss the Government's plans. 

Ms Genter wouldn't tell 1 NEWS what was going to be discussed ahead of the meeting, but campaigners say it looks like the Government's on track to provide free products in schools this year.

RESEARCHER FRUSTRATED AT LACK OF FUNDING FROM PHARMAC

The study results come as a New Zealand researcher has expressed frustration over Pharmac's response to her application for sanitary product funding.

Dr Sarah Donovan from the University of Otago says she submitted an application to Pharmac to fund menstrual products via schools last year.

"Lack of access to menstrual products is an unacceptable health equity issue, which we now know is causing avoidable physical, mental and educational impacts for New Zealand school pupils," Dr Donovan told 1 NEWS. 

"The costings provided in our application showed these items are cheap to bulk purchase, and it is simply not acceptable for any New Zealand school pupil to miss school for this reason."

Dr Donovan says the application drew on extensive international and local research to show menstrual products were a health need that was not being met, since Pharmac had said this evidence was missing in previously declined applications in 2016 and 2017.

But Pharmac says instead of treating Dr Donovan's application as one for the funding of sanitary products, it's treating it as a research proposal.

That's because Pharmac says Dr Donovan's proposed programme to fund menstrual products "is a pilot, is timebound and seeks to establish therapeutic benefits from menstrual pads".

But Dr Donovan says she was only made aware her application wasn't being treated as a standard Pharmac application when she was approached by 1 NEWS.

She wants to see recognition from Pharmac that sanitary products are a health need.

"It is clear there is a health need, especially among school pupils as a vulnerable, financially-dependent group; this is now widely recognised internationally," she says.

"But in New Zealand there seems to be this ongoing reluctance at a health-systems level to even recognise the problem so that policy solutions can then follow.

"It is extremely disappointing that Pharmac continues to ignore one of women and girls' most basic health needs."

Pharmac says it will communicate its decision to Dr Donovan on her proposal within the next one to two months.