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Government moves to end 'period poverty' in SA schools

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Free pads and tampons will be made available to students in every South Australian public school, following a successful trial aimed at reducing “period poverty”.

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The State Government will provide a grant this term to each public school based on the number of female enrolments in Year 5 and above, “to ensure that access to sanitary products is not a barrier for learning”.

The commitment has been welcomed by campaigners – some more cautiously than others – who have been lobbying the government to take action against the problem of girls missing school because they can’t afford pads and tampons.

“Period poverty” was identified as a significant issue in a major report by South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People in 2019.

A subsequent survey by the Commissioner last year found a quarter of students had missed out on attending school because they didn’t have sanitary products. 

Half reported not having access or not knowing how to get products at school.

The State Government’s pledge to provide pads and tampons in all schools follows a move by Victoria which last year became the first state or territory in Australia to provide free sanitary products in all government schools.

The Victorian Government committed more than $20 million to roll out dispensing machines in the state’s 1500-plus public schools.

SA Education Minister John Gardner said the government would provide $450,000 over three years for the program.

“We want to ensure that no girl or young woman in South Australia is missing school because they don’t have access to sanitary products,” he said.

“Meeting the needs of students for sanitary products – whether they have limited access at home or get caught out – gives students less to worry about and allows them to focus on their learning.”

Schools will decide on a site by site basis how to offer the products to students – whether in vending machines or discreet pencil case style containers, for example.

The Government last year funded a trial in 15 schools to provide free sanitary products, after SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros and Labor MLC Irene Pnevmatikos introduced a private members’ bill to roll out dispensing machines across state-run schools.

Gardner said trial schools worked with students to determine how they would prefer to access the products, with some opting for a basket or box in a particular bathroom, or a discreet bag and code word for staff.

He said while many schools already had an emergency supply of products if needed, some students did not feel comfortable accessing them.

“Our trial schools had an overwhelmingly positive response from their students, working together to find the right fit for their local needs,” he said.

“Indeed, while the trial schools did already have existing provisions in place, the very activity of having students and staff work together to identify the best process for their site helped raise awareness and reduce stigma associated with the program.

“Funding for these products will allow schools to engage with their students with regards to how products are provided and how students can access sanitary items in a discreet, respectful way. Schools will also be provided with information about some of the procedures that have worked well at other sites.”

Scotland last year became the first country in the world to make period products free for anyone who needs them, not just in schools.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been calling for government action to enable free access to sanitary products for all women and girls here.

The issue was again recently highlighted, when young Adelaide woman Isobel Marshall was last month named the 2021 Young Australian of the Year for work in addressing “period poverty”.

Bonaros said the SA government’s commitment for schools was a “good first step”.

“The Minister and his department have finally made this decision after kicking and screaming against such an initiative since coming into office,” she said.

“And if the Minister was embarrassed into doing this, imagine the humiliation a young student experiences each time she needs to go to the front office of her school to ask for a sanitary product.

“This is all about ending period poverty and ensuring no-one is left behind due to their personal circumstances.

“Providing sanitary products for students at schools is exactly the same as providing toilet paper in our schools.”

The move has been welcomed by school principals.

SA Secondary Principals’ Association chief executive Peter Mader said “we are obviously very pleased that the Government has responded to address this need”.

“We see this as a responsive approach by government to address a real need rather than a perceived need in schools,” Mader said.

SA Primary Principals Association president Angela Falkenberg said “it’s a really good step forward”.

“Bringing this conversation into mainstream is really important,” she said.

“What has been a taboo subject… it’s just bringing it out there. This is about access. It can be about ‘oh my gosh, I’ve left mine home’ or it’s about ‘I haven’t got any money’. If that’s a simple barrier we can eradicate and get girls to school – fantastic.

“It’s allowing each school to make their decision so I think it’s a really positive step forward.”

Falkenberg said she’d heard of an instance in a high school where a male student had requested sanitary products for his sister so she could attend school.

Bonaros said “while we applaud the government for finally doing something on this crucial matter, I’m not sure it has got it entirely right”.

She said she would be seeking advice from the Commissioner for Children and Young People “on whether the government’s program addresses all the concerns she has”.

Pnevmatikos said “although we applaud the Marshall Liberal Government for acting on the issue of period poverty, we will have to wait and see how the program is rolled out”.

“This program has come about after a year of calling out the Marshall Liberal Government on their inaction not just within the parliament but also by the wider community who campaigned on the issue.”

Pnevmatikos said “this program is far from the gold standard”.

“Unlike our proposed legislation, the government cannot assure us that each school would have access to the program nor ensure that girls could access free pads and tampons in a dignified way,” she said.

“We will be following the roll out of the program and continue to consult with schools and stakeholder groups to ensure that every girl has access to the sanitary items she needs.”

Woodville High School was one of the 15 trial schools, offering students sanitary products through a vending machine or in discreet containers that look like pencil cases.

Principal Anna Mirasgentis said the vending machine worked well for older students, while younger students preferred the pencil case system.

“We see this as a really important service for our community and it is accessed on a regular basis,” she said.

“We know that some students wouldn’t come to school if they didn’t get support like this, in a safe space. It’s an equity issue for me.

“It became more than just the distribution of sanitary products. Students came to that space not only to access the products but to have someone to speak to.”

Woodville High School students with free sanitary products offered by the school in a discreet pencil case.
Photo: Supplied

Mirasgentis said access to sanitary products became even more of a problem last year with the COVID pandemic putting extra financial stress on families.

“There were often times the students would come but we knew they were also supplying a parent and boys used to come and collect these sanitary products for their sister,” she said.

“So it became a really safe space for our students.”

Mirasgentis said she was “highly supportive” of the government rolling the program out to other schools.

Commissioner for Children and Young People Helen Connolly said it was “certainly positive” the government was taking action and she called for more funding if it was needed.

“It’s great that they’ve acknowledged it as an issue,” she said.

“Whatever happens in schools has to have student involvement in designing what will work in that context and that community.”

Connolly’s office has recently conducted another major survey on the problem, canvassing the views of 2200 young people aged seven to 21 and finding “the whole impact on attendance is more than the product”.

“It highlighted things around bathroom access at schools, the embarrassment around light uniforms… menstrual pain – they didn’t seem to know how to manage pain,” Connolly said.

“They wanted far more information on how to manage periods on a day to day basis, disposal of sanitary items at school, queues for bathrooms.

“A lot of kids are still saying they don’t know anything about their period before they get it and then the others are saying that they just don’t have enough understanding to know how to manage it on a day to day basis.

“The stigma, taboo around menstruation is huge, so we really do need to kind of normalise what’s going on and have broader conversations.”

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