If Jacinda Ardern wants to end period poverty she needs to take some lessons from abroad | New Zealand

As Labour tries to fulfil its many election promises, there is one area it could score an easy win – the period product rollout scheduled for June.

And if New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern is serious about ending period poverty, she needs to take a good look at England and Scotland.

Both countries have pioneered the provision of free period products in schools. New Zealand is embarking on the same path and so far, 1,500 schools (about 50% of those eligible) have opted in to the free period product programme.

This echoes what happened in England where less than 40% of state schools and colleges have placed orders. This is symptomatic of the opt-in approach. Provision could be made mandatory so that ordering tampons is as routine as ordering toilet paper and hand towels.

Aside from that, there are other, more positive, lessons to be learnt from England and Scotland.

Part of the key to Scotland’s success has been grassroots student engagement and strong parliamentary leadership. In Glasgow, for example, a student group organised a city-wide conference that ended up calling out schools that required young people to ask staff for products, which had meant students were too embarrassed to get products when they needed them. The call led schools to rethink how they distributed period products.

Scottish MP Monica Lennon has been at the forefront of Scotland’s rollout, launched last year, championing the issue inside parliament.

“A few years ago there had never been an open discussion of menstruation in the Holyrood chamber and now it’s mainstream,” she said.

New Zealand needs its own champion in the minister for women, former school principal Jan Tinetti, or Jacinda Ardern herself.

Both England and Scotland have also consciously chosen to encourage and promote the use of biodegradable and sustainable products as well as reusable pads and menstrual cups.

This is important because regular non-organic pads can take 500–800 years to break down and, as plastic makes up such a large amount of these products, they will never truly biodegrade. Women will use between five to fifteen thousand pads and tampons in their lifetime.

Young New Zealanders care passionately about climate action; the School Strike for Climate was one of the biggest strikes in history. Young people have said loud and clear that any government decisions need to bear their future planet in mind.

And New Zealand’s government has acknowledged this. Its procurement rules state the government should seek to “reduce emissions and waste” when it comes to its spending – it must not lose sight of this.

Menstrual cups are a great alternative to pads and tampons, as is reusable period underwear.

Dignity, the organisation I co-founded to push for free access to period products to those who need it, has provided more than 1,700 pairs of reusable period underwear and information pamphlets to school and community partners since November 2019.

Students who have tried the underwear were anxious at first but had an overwhelmingly positive experience.

One teacher told us that the period underwear gave the students peace of mind – they didn’t have to risk the embarrassment of a potential leak.

“It seems the students are getting used to the idea of not wearing a pad during their period. They felt ‘free’ of being made to feel they are a prisoner in their own body having to continuously find products to ‘fix’ their problem,” they said.

Students are educated about the menstrual cycle in England at the same time as the free products are provided.

Despite the obvious benefits of this approach it won’t be used in New Zealand’s rollout, despite teachers asking for it.

“I think reusable options would be great but students would need education on how to wash underwear. The toilets at our school are not private enough for rinsing menstrual cups,” one teacher told us.

Boys also need to be educated. As HeyGirls, a UK organisation seeking to end period poverty, has written “The problem is that learning is often delivered only once, and often only to girls.” Speaking to one half of the population defeats the purpose of normalising a general bodily function and removing the stigma of periods overall.

This is not just a rollout for students. This rollout needs staff, parents and whānau to all be on board with making sure our young people have a positive experience with their periods.

Jacinta Gulasekharam is a Co-Founder and Director of Dignity, a social enterprise which campaigns to deliver period equity. She led the Positive Periods campaign which resulted in the government committing to free period products for students in New Zealand

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