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On International Women’s Day, it’s well past time to combat access and stigma around Kiwi women’s health

Last year I was on a flight and I got my period. The timing was unexpected, so I had no sanitary items with me, but I assumed tampons and pads would be carried as part of a standard flight first-aid kit, along with things like sticking plasters and paracetamol. When I asked, I was shocked to find that wasn’t the case and there was nothing available for me – and suddenly I found myself wondering what on earth I was going to do for the next five hours stuck in a metal tube with no way to buy what I needed. Luckily, one of the flight attendants stepped in and gave me her personal supply, which is possibly illustrative of what women have been doing for decades in the face of scarcity of freely available sanitary items in public or corporate (which airplanes are) bathrooms.

This experience, compounded with my reading in late 2019 of the KidsCan survey, got me thinking about period poverty in a way I never had before. I had taken for granted my ability to speak openly about and advocate for my health, and to buy whatever I needed whenever I needed it. This, the evidence tells us, is not true for many thousands of New Zealand girls and women, and we are all paying a price. Here is what we all need to be thinking about on International Women’s Day on 8 March:

Period poverty in New Zealand costs girls and women their dignity, their access to education and their earning power.

The 2019 KidsCan survey, thought to be the first of its kind in New Zealand and with more than 5,000 responses nationwide, found nearly a quarter of Kiwi females have missed school or work because they have been unable to afford sanitary items. Fifty-three percent said they had found it difficult to access sanitary items due to cost at some point (8.6 percently frequently, 44.5 percent occasionally). Among respondents aged under 17, the numbers were even more alarming, with 29 percent saying they had missed school or work due to having their period and lacking access to sanitary products.

The gender pay gap plays a very immediate role in how women manage their health.

The pay gap between men and women isn’t as simple as ‘men are paid more than women for the same work’; as we know, part of the issue is equal representation across industries and at senior management and governance levels, with a 2018 Grant Thornton survey finding only 18 percent of New Zealand businesses have at least one woman in a senior leadership role, versus 75 percent of businesses surveyed globally. Our company, Sudima Hotels, has a 50/50 gender split in leadership, which shouldn’t be so unusual in New Zealand in 2020 – and this has to change.

All this means that with women having less spending power than men, we have to make our dollar go further, and this can limit access to often costly sanitary products as well as other services associated with women’s health. (The ‘pink tax’ plays into this, too – razors for women cost more even though they are the same as razors for men, except they tend to be pink. There is a cost associated with being a woman and corporations profiting off that.)

Are women with limited budgets obtaining timely medical care and attention when they experience troubling or unexplained symptoms? If they need advice or help with fertility, contraception or pregnancy care, can they afford it? Yes, we have a publicly funded health care system that is supposed to serve everyone, but we know there are access issues related to geographic and socioeconomic status, there are usually out-of-pocket expenses of some kind, and ‘period poverty’ is not just limited to menstruation.

Precedents are building for policy decisions that help girls and women overcome period poverty.

A Scottish survey of more than 2,000 people, most of them at secondary school, college or university, had similar findings to the KidsCan survey – a quarter had struggled to access sanitary products in the past year, mostly because of money. To combat period poverty, in February 2020 the Scottish Parliament put forward a Bill which, if passed, will put a legal duty on the Scottish government to ensure anyone who needs period products can obtain them for free, through a government ‘period products scheme’ which will give anyone who needs them access to different types of sanitary products.

I don’t see why this cannot be something New Zealand could aim for; we can at least provide for everyone’s basic needs through a free programme, and if you apply a cost-benefit analysis, the cost of free provision would be vastly outweighed by the benefit of having more girls and women in full-time school and work.

We have to stand up for the interests of girls and women while being sensitive to cultural issues that can stigmatise their health needs.

As humans we have not yet become broadly sophisticated and open-minded about menstruation, though every baby ever born has emerged from a uterus. An American evolutionary anthropologist and biologist, Beverly Strassman, says, “Menstrual taboos are so widespread, they’re almost a cultural universal.” Though some cultures venerate menstruating girls and women, others discourage conversation about periods or reproductive or sexual health and even see menstruation as dirty.

Stigma not only creates embarrassment and limits knowledge of health and access to health care, it can be dangerous in a more immediate way. If people lack access to good-quality sanitary items because of stigma, shame, shyness, lack of money or all of the above, what are they using instead to manage their periods? Using items that are unsanitary or not designed for periods can create health risks and cause rashes, infections and other problems.

I believe we need to be sensitive to cultural norms while challenging and changing opinions which stigmatise periods and female reproductive health in ways that disadvantage, and even humiliate, girls and women. Periods are normal and they must be normalised throughout the cultural discourse.

One way of doing this is fostering conversation and access by providing sanitary items free, as we do for all staff and guests at Sudima Hotels. It is hard to be embarrassed by a pad or tampon when it is as commonplace as a toilet roll or bar of soap. It is also the kind thing to do for people who are travelling; maybe their body clock has become a bit dysregulated and their period arrives unexpectedly (as it did for me on the plane), or it’s late at night and the shops are closed, or they’re in an unfamiliar city, or there is a language or cultural barrier to asking for products. We simply provide a little cardboard box containing Organic Initiative (Oi) products in guest bathrooms to allow people access and privacy.

Companies can promote women’s health at minimal cost.

Our staff have been able to access free Oi products since last year, and anecdotally they report it makes a difference to them; they can go about their day comfortably using good-quality, safe, organic products, and speak freely about their menstrual health. Many of our staff have large families and having these products provided free alleviates some stress on the household budget. Along with the products we have offered advice on how to safely and responsibly dispose of items after use; this knowledge is not always taught at school or home.

The cost per person is not significant, and in any case it is outweighed by increased levels of staff engagement, satisfaction and retention derived from people feeling that their employer cares about them and has invested in their health and comfort at work. Moreover, those women missing work because they can’t access sanitary items will have that obstacle removed, which is better for employers.

And why shouldn’t companies help lead the fight against period poverty? Many businesses already get behind campaigns like Movember and breast cancer fundraising, and women’s health warrants just as much attention.

This International Women’s Day, let’s take on period poverty once and for all. Let’s help girls and women thrive and take this crucial step towards equal footing and equal opportunity, so periods stop being a barrier to entry to education, leadership and ownership.

Environmental and social advocate Vedika Jhunjhnuwala is executive director of projects at the national hotel group Sudima Hotels.

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