‘HIDDEN POVERTY’ IN NZ SCHOOLS A HEARTBREAKING REALITY
Girls menstruating at younger ages – charity calls for help to keep them in the classroom.
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.”