Primary school children struggling with period poverty

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Girls as young as eight are getting their period, new figures reveal. It comes as demand for KidsCan sanitary products in primary schools increases, as many parents on low incomes struggle to afford the essential items for their children.

The new data, from the Ministry of Health’s 2014/15 NZ Health Survey, is the first time New Zealand has collected national data on the age at which girls first start menstruating. Otago University researchers have been analysing it, and estimate one in 16 girls, or 6.3 percent, get their period while at primary school. Nearly half will have their period by the time they start high school. 

Dr Sarah Donovan, from Otago University’s Department of Public Health, says children in hardship could be particularly affected. She says international data shows that globally the age of first periods is decreasing, with factors such as increasing body mass index (BMI) in younger children considered a likely contributing factor.

“We know children in lower socio-economic groups are at a higher risk of obesity through being less able to afford healthy, nutritious food,” she says. 

“A lack of access to sanitary items is a serious and hidden equity issue which needs to be addressed to support these young girls, particularly those of primary school age. 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.”

The findings mirror KidsCan’s own data. This year the charity has supplied 329 schools across the country with more than 16,000 boxes of pads, tampons and liners. Ten percent of that product went to 70 contributing schools (years 1-6.) A further 24.7 percent went to full primary and intermediate schools. 

Papatoetoe West School teacher Lizzy Lockhart says it can be a frightening time for girls who start menstruating at primary school. 

“There’s still so much stigma around bringing it up and being the one kid in the class who has their period, and feeling like that means something is wrong with you,” she says. 

She says it’s a huge relief for them when she can give them free sanitary items from KidsCan. 

“A lot of our kids don’t come to school with lunch - and if their families can’t afford lunch how will they go out and afford to buy sanitary products? I know when one girl wasn’t getting stuff from our KidsCan supplies at school she was just using toilet paper.”

KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman says the charity added sanitary items to the list of school essentials it provides more than three years ago, after she found that girls were staying home from school because they didn’t have any products. 

“It is an absolute tragedy that girls are missing school because they have their period. Education is their ticket out of poverty, and they shouldn’t be falling behind because of a lack of access to sanitary items. With the help of our donors we’re working hard to change that.” 

In 2017, KidsCan supplied students with 15,356 boxes of pads, tampons and liners - an 83 per cent increase in product suppled in 2016. This year, it has already surpassed that total.

The charity is calling for more kind Kiwis to sign up to support a child for $20 a month, helping to provide shoes, raincoats, food and sanitary items to Kiwi kids in need.