Government funding for period products in schools has significantly improved students' well-being — but that funding is not guaranteed beyond June. Anna Murray looks at the impacts of potentially ending access to period products in our kura.

The National-led Government was swift in its directives for change within the education system when it came to power late last year.

The most significant of those measures was ensuring all students in Years 0 to 8 begin an hour each of reading, writing and maths every day.

But Danika Revell, chief executive and co-founder of The Period Place, has another suggestion for improving kids' performance at school — extend their access to period products.

"If a kid doesn't have access to period products, they're not going to be coming to do any hours [of reading, writing and maths]," she said.

Funding for period products in schools has only been guaranteed until June this year. Its future beyond that is still very much up in the air.

Any announcements on funding decisions for period products in schools would be made as part of this year's Budget, Education Minister Erica Stanford said. She would not say if the initiative was one the Government would like to continue.

Schools keen to keep initiative

The Ministry of Education said schools supported continuing the programme.

More than 2180 schools, kura, activity centres and alternative education providers have opted into the initiative, said Sean Teddy, the ministry's hautū (leader) of operations and integration.

He said the ministry gathered feedback from schools through an anonymous survey at the end of last year and the feedback was positive.

Of the 119 secondary schools that responded, 45% said the access to period products reduced barriers to attendance, while 28% reported increased participation in sports, physical education or cultural activities.

Schools said the scheme had also had a significant positive impact on the well-being of students and their whānau.

Nearly half of schools (49%) reported improved student well-being, while 71% reported whānau were benefitting from reduced expenses. Fifty-nine per cent of schools reported reduced stigma around periods, too.

Ending programme would be 'destructive'

Revell said the impacts of not extending funding for period products in schools would be significant.

"There's so many barriers [to school], so many things that go on in kids' lives that they can't control," she said.

"To remove a programme like this, which in the grand scheme of the education system [costs] nothing, would be destructive. For children in New Zealand schools, it would actually be destructive."

While many people regard their period as just another part of their everyday experience, it it can significantly impact those who can't afford period products.

Many students will often miss school when they have their period, which can have knock-on effects for their education and subsequent job opportunities. It can be another barrier to escaping cycles of poverty.

Period inequity is also a mental and physical health issue, Revell said.

"If you're putting toilet paper or rags [in your underwear] or you're taking a pad that has filled up and you squeeze it so the blood comes out and you put that pad back because you're trying to make it last double as long — which happens — that is not healthy," she said.

"If we don't have universal access to period products in every bathroom outside the home, which we don't, we're putting half our population at risk for personal health issues."

Improving access to period products

Revell said period products should be treated in the same way as toilet paper.

"I personally don't like the term 'free period products in schools'," she said.

"Nobody walks outside and says, 'I get free toilet paper at my work or free toilet paper at school or free toilet paper in my cafe.' [This is] about access to products that are designed to manage bodily fluids."

Revell said the Government has a huge opportunity to not only continue the period products in schools programme but to make the system even better.

Currently, the programme allows schools to opt into it, which most have.

"However, there are still some schools who didn't opt in because of the personal beliefs of the board [of trustees] or the principal, which I find frustrating," Revell said.

She said The Period Place also gets constant feedback about the way schools choose to distribute the period products.

Some schools make students go to the school nurse to get the products or sign for them. 

Others have dispensers in the handwashing areas of the school bathrooms rather than in the toilet cubicles, which means some students get put off by their peers' comments when trying to access the products.

"[The Government could] change the programme to something that is mandated across all schools and it's something that is made universally accessible, just like toilet paper is," Revell said.

Arguments over spending

Revell doesn't have much time for those who argue that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be spent on access to period products, saying that money is already spent on the toilet paper and the water that comes through the taps to wash people's hands in school bathrooms.

She also pointed out that the Government is not paying retail price for period products.

"I can't share exactly what it is, but the price that the Government is paying for the period products in the programme at the moment is nowhere near the $7 it costs to buy a packet off a retail shelf," she said.

But Revell said all the people who want to "pick up a sword and have a battle about this" should step back and really think about what society gains from the programme.

"This is something that benefits all children, whether they're getting access to the products or not, because when kids are healthier, the classroom's healthier, the community's healthier," she said.

"When we have people in our communities who are walking around... with toilet paper or tissues or rags or socks or whatever it is [in their underwear], I think that rather than trying to fight, we stop and ask, 'how can I help?'

"And even if the only way [they] can help is by not having a go or not attacking [this], that in itself is okay."

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