Period poverty is a big issue affecting many girls and women in Northland. Reporter Jenny Ling investigates the local solutions to a growing problem.
Diane Heta is in the habit of carrying loads of menstrual cups with her, wherever she goes.
They're in the glovebox of her car, in her handbag, and sometimes even in her pockets.
Heta is frequently out and about in the Far North's small towns and rural communities in her role as connector for Tukau Community Fund, a charitable trust which donates reusable silicon cups to women and girls who can't afford them.
She talks to mums and their daughters about their options with other period products and explains how to use the cups.
The Moerewa resident does this voluntarily, on top of her fulltime job.
She's also the mum of four daughters aged 12 to 24, three who are menstruating and who also use the cups.
Sanitary products have become so unaffordable that some girls have reverted to going "on the rag", she said. They're also using towels, t-shirts, socks and toilet paper.
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Heta is a huge advocate for the cups and grateful she discovered them.
Period poverty: The Warehouse selling $1 sanitary products
Government promises action on period poverty
Period products are costly; it can be up to $20 to $30 per month per woman, with an overall spend of $15,000 over her lifetime.
Paying $20 to $40 for a menstrual cup, which last for up to 10 years, is a great alternative, Heta said.
"Otherwise the cost of managing that in our household would be huge."
Heta is part of the solution to period poverty which affects thousands of girls and women around the country.
Though there are no specific figures for Northland, a recent Youth 19 study surveyed 4000 students from Northland, Auckland and Waikato schools.
The study found 21 per cent of students from low decile schools had missed school due to period poverty.
Māori and Pacific students were most affected, with almost one in 12 missing class once a month or more.
With the growing awareness around period poverty, calls for the Government to step up and fund products for students are getting louder.
In response to the study, released in February, KidsCan called for more action to help.
KidsCan chief executive and founder Julie Chapman said New Zealand needs to act on the research.
"In New Zealand today, girls should not be missing school because they don't have sanitary products," she said.
"It affects their education, reduces their career prospects, and can trap them in a cycle of poverty."
KidsCan has been providing sanitary items in the decile 1-4 schools it supports since 2013.
Last year the charity supplied 53 Northland schools with 3300 boxes of sanitary products.
Around the country, more than 30,000 boxes of pads, tampons and liners were delivered.
That's expected to rise four-fold to 130,000 boxes this year after a push to educate students on the support available.
This is on top of the millions of food, clothing and other health items KidsCan provides for children living in poverty around the country.
Chapman said it would be cost effective for the Government to roll out a programme to help the students who need sanitary support.
"We're ready and able to work with the Government on this," she said.
"The need is so great around other things we do, that a partnership with Government to address this issue and utilise our supply chain would be welcome.
"If the Government was to step in, it would free up money to get help to more kids that need it in other areas."
Chapman said she would love to see New Zealand follow England, Scotland and Wales, whose Governments fund sanitary products for school students.
Starting this year state schools in England can order free period products for students as part of a government scheme to tackle period poverty.
Scotland looks set to take it a step further and become the world's first country to make period products free to every woman.
A new bill currently before Parliament would launch a programme making pads and tampons free for all at public places such as pharmacies and community centres.
The issue is gaining traction here too.
Last November, an Aotearoa Period Hui in Auckland saw academics, medical professionals, activists and community groups gather to share first-hand accounts of growing period poverty in New Zealand.
The same month a petition with more than 3000 signatures calling on the Government to provide sanitary products for students was presented to Women's Minister Julie Anne Genter.
At the time Genter and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the issue was "a priority", and there would be an announcement before the Government's 2020 Budget which will be delivered on May 14.
University of Otago public health researcher Dr Sarah Donovan – a key speaker at the hui - wants to see menstrual products categorised as a health need.
She has submitted an application to Pharmac to fund sanitary products in all decile 1-4 primary, secondary and intermediate schools.
Donovan said she and other researchers and advocates had a meeting with Genter in February.
"She assured us the Government is committed to doing something," Donovan said.
"But they've been saying that since last year so we're hoping to see something concrete.
"There's so much public support and interest but we're still not seeing any action."
In a statement, Genter reiterated that she would be making an announcement about period poverty ahead of the Budget.
"As Minister for Women, I know women and girls need access to menstrual products," she said.
"I support the women and girls who are campaigning hard to reduce period poverty, we are all in this together."
Meanwhile other charity groups in Northland are stepping up to tackle the problem.
There was a Fill-a-Bag fundraiser held at 17 locations nationwide last June including in the Bay of Islands.
The $33,000 raised went to The Good Fund that helps women nationwide have a choice to access reusable sanitary products.
The Northern Advocate last year reported two initiatives working to combat the issue in Whangārei including The Red Box Project.
There is also a growing market for other reusable products, including reusable sanitary pads and period underwear.
The Warehouse recently jumped on board, creating its own line of affordable sanitary products.
Each packet of regular pads, super pads or liners under The Warehouse brand cost just $1. For every 10 sold, one packet will be donated to Women's Refuge.
The Warehouse chief product officer Tania Benyon said all women should be able to access basic essentials.
"When we learned that women were missing out on things like work and school because they were struggling with this cost every month we wanted to do our part to help address the issue," she said.
"This is a long term initiative for us and we are looking at opportunities to include tampons and menstrual cups in the range in the future."
In 2017 Tukau Community Fund partnered with My Cup NZ to distribute menstrual cups free of charge to Northland women. For every cup bought, one is donated to someone in need.
So far around 2600 menstrual cups have been donated to women and girls in the Bay of Islands, as well as Kaitaia, Kaikohe and Kaeo.
They're also good for the environment, diverting 3.9kg of waste per woman a year from landfill.
Tukau co-founder Season-Mary Downs said the Government needs to address the affordability of sanitary products.
"Not only cups but other products as well; there's no one solution for every woman, but every woman deserves to manage their period with integrity and without stress."
But Downs said it's not just about providing period products.
More education is needed at schools and in homes about menstruation, what products are available, and how to use them safely and effectively, she said.
"We have to have that conversation with it and that whanaungatanga [relationship through shared experiences].
"It's giving women that confidence around speaking openly around period management and taking the silence away from managing their periods. We need to remove the shame and fear."
Chapman agreed more education and cultural sensitivity is needed, along with removing the stigma and barriers to access.
"Education is as equally important as providing the product. It would be a mistake to allocate money to schools without thinking through the education component."
Downs' sister Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime is also involved in the My Cup partnership and has been outspoken on period poverty.
Prime raised the issue with Meghan Markle at Government House during her visit to New Zealand as the Duchess of Sussex in 2018.
Prime has also talked to several school principals who said the number one reason for female truancy was their period.
"It affects their learning and their grades," Prime said. "They're missing up to a week of school a month. This leads to rising tensions at home and is a recipe for disaster.
"If we can help alleviate the pressure on whānau from the economic side, then it's just about encouraging your teen to go to school. We're removing the barrier."
Prime said having products available in schools, universities and "anywhere there are women" is essential.
For low income families being able to access products should be part of their entitlements through Work and Income NZ, she said.
Dignity is another organisation that provides access to sanitary items for women in work and at school.
It currently supports more than 100 schools, youth groups and women's support services, including some in Northland.
The organisation runs a buy one, give one model; for every box of sanitary items a company purchases, the equivalent is donated to those in need.
Co-founder Miranda Hitchings said a commitment is needed from Government to have sanitary products in all schools.
The products need to include a range of items so women and girls have choice, she said.
"Period poverty is a complex problem; though it affects students, it still affects other people in our communities.
"If the Government funds students then that will let us distribute our products to other groups of people who are experiencing period poverty."
The combined knowledge of those working to fight period poverty show providing products to students has a positive effect including a reduction in absenteeism.
There is also a direct correlation in students doing better in school, she said.
"It's happening around the world, it's not like a crazy radical thing that's not achievable," Hitchings said.
"It's a small intervention and it's making a long term difference."
Period poverty: the numbers
4000: Northland, Auckland and Waikato students surveyed in the Youth 19 study.
12 per cent: Year 9-13 students who had trouble getting sanitary products due to cost.
21 per cent: Students from low decile schools who missed school due to lack of access to sanitary products.
19 per cent: Māori and Pacific students experiencing period poverty.
$15,000: The average amount a woman spends on sanitary products over her lifetime.