‘HID­DEN POVERTY’ IN NZ SCHOOLS A HEART­BREAK­ING RE­AL­ITY

Girls men­stru­at­ing at younger ages – char­ity calls for help to keep them in the class­room.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CANVAS & KIDSCAN CHARITABLE TRUST -

Wor­ry­ing num­bers of school girls men­stru­at­ing for the first time at ten­der pre- teen ages are skip­ping school be­cause their par­ents can’t af­ford to buy san­i­tary items.

Julie Chap­man CEO of Kid­sCan, a char­ity help­ing to al­le­vi­ate the ef­fects of eco­nomic hard­ship on chil­dren, says when fam­i­lies strug­gle to put food on the ta­ble, a $5 box of pads isn’t an op­tion.

“Miss­ing school reg­u­larly is putting these young girls be­hind in their learn­ing and we want to re­move these bar­ri­ers so they can spend more time in the class­room.”

Chap­man’s com­ments come fol­low­ing a Univer­sity of Otago anal­y­sis of the Min­istry of Health’s 2014-15 NZ Health Sur­vey which es­ti­mates one in 16 girls, or 6.3 per cent, get their first pe­riod while at pri­mary school.

Chap­man says Kid­sCan - which is call­ing on Ki­wis for sup­port to help it pro­vide san­i­tary items for schools - says some­times poverty is painfully hid­den like when an eight- year-old chooses not to tell any­one she’s started men­stru­at­ing. “How do you deal with that when you’re only eight years old?

“They feel like a bur­den and in­stead re­sort to socks or toi­let pa­per which only makes them feel more in­se­cure,” she says. “It’s not sur­pris­ing that when they’re over­pow­ered by anx­i­ety, kids just don’t go to school - it’s eas­ier to stay home, close to the toi­let and that’s an ab­so­lute tragedy.”

Kid­sCan is call­ing on Ki­wis to help with the pro­vi­sion of san­i­tary items and other essen­tials for girls. It is en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to do­nate $20 a month, an amount it says can make a world of dif­fer­ence, help give girls con­fi­dence, dig­nity – and, most im­por­tantly, more time in the class­room.

Last year the char­ity supplied 15,356 boxes of pads, tam­pons and lin­ers – an 83 per cent in­crease on 2016. Al­ready this year it has supplied 329 schools with more than 16,000 boxes.

Chap­man says the is­sue needs to be talked about openly. “Girls tell us that when there’s not enough money to feed the fam­ily, they don’t ask for san­i­tary items.

“Get­ting your pe­riod at any age is a big, con­fus­ing, painful deal. At pri­mary school age, it’s even more dis­tress­ing. One teacher told us girls who get their pe­riod ear­lier than their peers feel like there’s some­thing wrong with them.

“That’s enough for any girl to cope with, but if your par­ents are strug­gling to pro­vide even the ba­sics – like food – it’s in­tensely mag­ni­fied.”

Many teens have opened up to Kid­sCan about their feel­ings. Says one: “Ev­ery time we have our pe­riod, we’re para­noid it will leak through. You might be walk­ing and out of nowhere it’s on your legs.”

An­other girl says: “’ We can’t eat tam­pons’. That’s what my Mum says. ‘ It’s not go­ing to fill you up’. She means it takes food out of our mouths like meat and stuff.”

And a third talks about the ef­fect it has had on her school­ing: “If I didn’t have any­thing around me I’d just use toi­let pa­per. It was very un­com­fort­able and quite shame­ful be­cause you don’t know if it’s drip­ping out. I wouldn’t come to school be­cause of that.”

Lizzy Lock­hart, a teacher at Pa­p­a­toe­toe West School in Auck­land, says it is a huge re­lief when they are able to give girls free san­i­tary items pro­vided by Kid­sCan.

She says a lot of stu­dents come to school with­out lunch and “if their fam­i­lies can’t af­ford lunch how will they go out and af­ford to buy san­i­tary prod­ucts?”

Dr Sarah Dono­van of the Univer­sity of Otago’s De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health says the health sur­vey is the first time New Zealand has col­lected na­tional data on the age at which girls first start men­stru­at­ing.

Dono­van says in­ter­na­tional data in­di­cates that glob­ally the age of first pe­ri­ods is de­creas­ing.

She says the univer­sity’s anal­y­sis shows the av­er­age age of first pe­riod is roughly 13.2 years, but that up to 1900 girls ex­pe­ri­ence this while still at pri­mary school. Nearly half will have their pe­riod by the time they start high school.

“A lack of ac­cess to san­i­tary items is a se­ri­ous and hid­den eq­uity is­sue which needs to be ad­dressed,” Dono­van says. “It’s re­ally a mat­ter of child rights that no girl of any age should miss school be­cause her fam­ily could not af­ford men­strual prod­ucts.”

A health nurse at a low decile Auck­land school says it has a group of girls who come reg­u­larly to the sick­bay for these prod­ucts. “They no longer have to miss a week of school and the em­bar­rass­ment this can cause. You can see the re­lief on their faces when you are able to give them a packet of san­i­tary prod­uct to take home and use.”

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