Australia

Period poverty and stigma in Australia is ‘a bigger issue than you might think’. Here’s why

Queensland has become the latest state to make period products available for free in public high schools.
While the move has been applauded by campaigners against period poverty and stigma, they say more work needs to be done.

“Access to period products should never be a barrier to learning”, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Tuesday, announcing that all state high school students will have access to free period products such as tampons and sanitary pads from next year.

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CEO of girls’ equality charity Plan International Australia, Susanne Legena, welcomed the announcement, telling SBS News while Australia still has “a way to go” in addressing period poverty and stigma “these kinds of decisions will have long-term generational impact”.
“From a gender equality point of view, it’s actually really important that all children and young people get access to really good information about periods, about period poverty, about what happens to your body, and also then have access to facilities they need and the products they need. That’s partly why we welcome this decision by the Queensland government to make products free in public schools,” Ms Legena said.

Having access to period products “really does impact whether people go to school, how comfortable they feel when they are at school, and it just removes one of those barriers to people being able to thrive and just be themselves”, she said.

How will the scheme work and what are other states doing?

Queensland follows other states in introducing free period products to public schools.
In 2020, Victoria became the first state or territory in Australia to provide universal access to free sanitary products in public schools.
“Pads and tampons are just as essential as toilet paper and soap, so from this week, we’ll start supplying them in our public schools – free of charge. It’s an Australian first and it’s the right thing to do,” Premier Daniel Andrews said at the time.
In 2021, the South Australian government announced it would spend $450,000 over the next three years to pay for free pads and tampons at all public schools.

In March, NSW announced a $30 million program to place free pads and tampons in every state school.

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“Getting your period should not be a barrier to education,” NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said.
The Queensland government has been trialling vending machines dispensing period packs, containing six tampons and two sanitary pads, in 53 state schools, five Catholic schools and four independent schools.
The machines, provided by charity Share the Dignity, were set to be installed in another 58 schools in the second half of this year.

Ms Palaszczuk said the machines will be installed in all 276 state high schools in Queensland as part of this year’s budget.

“Access to free period products can make a real difference to children, especially students whose families are doing it tough, have unstable accommodation or are fleeing domestic and family violence,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

The government will also continue funding a menstruation education program for all students in Years Five to Eight.

What is period poverty?

“Period poverty doesn’t just mean not having access to period products,” Ms Legena said.
“It could also mean a lack of access to education about menstrual health, it could mean not having access to toilets or washing facilities. And so it’s that combination of not having the knowledge, maybe the facilities, and then the products that you would need to be able to healthily manage your period.”
Research on period poverty in Australia released last year by Share the Dignity found that more than one in five people who menstruate were ‘improvising’ by using items including toilet paper and socks due to the cost of pads or tampons.
The survey of more than 125,000 people found that nearly half had missed at least one day of school because of their period.
Period poverty in Australia is “a bigger issue than you might think”, Ms Legena said.

“That stigma that is still attached to getting your period, especially in school, can sometimes really influence whether or not kids go to school, and how they feel when they are there.”

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Barriers to menstrual well-being in Australia range from the cost of period products to education, and privacy.
“Girls and young people who menstruate from vulnerable communities in Australia can face significant challenges to manage their period safely and confidently,” Ms Legena said.

“It can be a combination of things, it could be to do with the cost of products, because they’re quite expensive, knowing which ones to use, being able to use them with privacy and in a safe way.”

The battle against menstruation stigma

In 2017, Eloise Hall co-founded social enterprise Taboo alongside high school best friend and 2021 Young Australian of the Year Isobel Marshall.
Both aged 18 at the time, the teenagers’ aim was to sell sanitary products and use the funds to address period poverty around the world.
The company’s stated purpose is “to eradicate global period poverty and improve menstrual well-being”, with “all company profits, education initiatives and advocacy efforts dedicated to eradicating period poverty through systematic and social change”.
Ms Hall said the Queensland government’s move would help in the fight against menstruation stigma and period poverty, but more work is needed.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction and policies and announcements like this have certainly helped. But there’s still a long way to go,” she said.

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A by SA’s Commissioner for Children and Young People found that one in four children and young people surveyed in the state reported experiencing problems getting period products when they needed them.
In addition to ensuring access to period products, bathroom and disposal facilities and “comprehensive education about menstruation”, the report said the “cultural and social norms and stigma existing at an individual, community and systems level preventing open discussion and normalisation of menstruation must also be addressed”.
“The research by the commissioner has also shown that the lack of period care does affects young people’s education, their commitment to sport and other social interactions,” Ms Hall said.
“And just the general stigma that’s associated with menstruation in general, at the moment, has flow on effects to people’s association with dignity and self worth.
“It imposes on people’s basic human rights and opportunities to education, social security and all the rest.”

With reporting by AAP.

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