Dirty. Poor. Useless.

Those are the feelings of Melanie, a Northland mum who found herself unable to afford enough sanitary products for both herself and her 15-year-old daughter.

"I should be able to afford something as simple as sanitary products."

Her husband suffered a "mini-stroke" in September last year and has only this week returned to work a couple of hours a week, which had made finances very tight.

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"I'd always make sure she [her daughter] had what she needed and if need be I'd take a day off work."

She said she used rags — cutting cloth nappies into shape and washing them afterwards.

"It's come down to, do I get pads or do I get milk or bread for the family. That's the situation I was in."

She says she spends around $30 a month on sanitary products.

Melanie, who also has a 10-year-old son, says she wants her daughter to go to school and get a good education "so she doesn't end up like me trying to make the money stretch".

"I didn't want her to be ashamed of her body because it's a natural thing."

One For Her co-orindator Kylie Billington (left) with Elisabeth Hemming, who is managing director of Curves Whangarei, a dropoff point for sanitary products. Photo / John Stone
One For Her co-orindator Kylie Billington (left) with Elisabeth Hemming, who is managing director of Curves Whangarei, a dropoff point for sanitary products. Photo / John Stone

A KidsCan survey on period poverty last year revealed almost a quarter (23.6 per cent) of the 5000-plus Kiwi women who responded have missed school or work because they have been unable to afford sanitary items.

More than half (53.1 per cent) say they have found it difficult to access sanitary items due to cost at some point. Of those, 8.6 per cent said frequently, and 44.5 per cent said occasionally.

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One in three respondents says they have had to prioritise buying other items, such as food, over sanitary products. When they can't afford them, most (53.8 per cent) resorted to toilet paper, but 7.7 per cent used rags, 3 per cent old cloths, and many mentioned using disposable or cloth nappies.

KidsCan chief executive officer Julie Chapman says the issue is widespread, and a significant issue for low-income families in particular.

Last year, the charity distributed more than 22,000 boxes of sanitary products to schools across the country, with 2050 going to Northland.

"We think that's probably just the tip of the iceberg."

Chapman wouldn't be drawn on more details but says they are working on further research to quantify the issue.

She says KidsCan has been providing sanitary products for around the past five years, but had seen a big increase in need in the past two years, alongside more need for food and clothing.

Girls who miss school for a week every month are "really disadvantaged" from being able to learn and create opportunities for themselves, she says.

Chapman says there is still work to do as they want to make those products available for girls without them feeling stigmatised or embarrassed, and they want to consult with the students.

"We've got to hear the voices of the people who are going to benefit from the initiative."

Hello! Just a little video I made to show you all how the boxes for schools work and what goes into them :) please excuse my distracting little shadow of a dog!! She doesn't often leave my side 😂

Posted by Red Box Project - Whangarei on Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Liberating. Empowering.

Those are the effects of an initiative in the Far North which is converting women to menstrual cups.

Labour list MP Willow-Jean Prime first became aware of the period poverty issue during the 2017 election campaign while visiting a school. Student support staff told her of KidsCan's work, but also that some girls miss school every month.

"I was just so shocked to hear that. If we've got families living in poverty who can't afford milk and bread then of course they can't afford sanitary products every month."

Around the same time, she and her family became aware of menstrual cups and they thought: "What if we could get these cups and convert young girls to them."

After a mini-trial and a fundraiser to buy more, what quickly transpired was a social enterprise partnership between Prime's sister Season-Mary Downs' charity Tukau and My Cup NZ.

Since September 2017 the initiative has distributed more than 2500 cups, largely in Moerewa and Kawakawa but also Kaikohe, Kaeo and Kaitaia.

"We just know the impact its having. We keep trying to talk about it to remove the taboo," Prime says.

"It has removed the barriers from them for school and work."

Labour list MP Willow-Jean Prime (in yellow) speaks to Meghan Markle (in black) about period poverty during the Duchess' visit to New Zealand last year. Photo / Supplied
Labour list MP Willow-Jean Prime (in yellow) speaks to Meghan Markle (in black) about period poverty during the Duchess' visit to New Zealand last year. Photo / Supplied

The reusable cups have many advantages — they last for 10 years, save a woman $240 a year and divert 3.9kg of waste per woman a year from landfill.

Prime has kept the conversation going in high places — even speaking to Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle about period poverty during her visit to New Zealand last year.

She also helped arrange a link between My Cup NZ and Youth Space in Whangarei.

There are two sanitary product donation and distribution initiatives working to combat the issue in Whangārei.

The first is The Red Box Project, started by Whangārei woman Kate Dent around September last year.

It's an initiative which has operated for around two years in England and after seeing the issue of poverty period in the news, Dent decided to created a branch here.

"The thing I liked about it is it's community based, community focused."

It follows a simple concept — she collects donated sanitary items from drop off points and distributes them via a red box in local schools.

"I'm just a channel for them to flow through."

There are Red Boxes in Kamo High School, Tikipunga High School, Whangarei Intermediate and Whangarei Girls High which Dent will top up as needed.

She wants to get smaller red boxes into primary schools.

"Girls these days are getting their period younger and younger."

Dent says it will also create continuity because girls will know about the red boxes from primary through to intermediate and high school.

"They always know there's something to help them out."

She says she leaves it up to the school where they put the box but suggests the office or the nurse. She also provides posters for the staff room and the student toilets, as well as information about toxic shock syndrome.

"The idea is that they can get whatever they need."

Dent had also made up some emergency packs — a little bag with a pair undies and a couple of pads. They had all been taken and she was waiting for monetary donations so she could buy underwear to make more.

New World Regent is one of her drop off points and she says she collects at least two full bags, or around 30-40 donated packets of sanitary items a month — which works out to at least one donation a day.

We now have 4 collection points in Whangarei, and so great to see donations coming in!! Thanks to all these businesses...

Posted by One For Her on Friday, 15 March 2019

The other initiative is One For Her, which was started by Auckland woman Michelle Wratten in May last year after she too saw the issue in the news.

The project has since grown and the first drop off points were established in Whangārei earlier this month.

The initiative encourages women to buy an extra pack of sanitary products every month and donate them at the drop off points; from there, they are given to organisations which distribute them to women in need.

Wratten says that, for some people, an extra $5 or so isn't much, but it makes a huge difference to families in need.

"If you're a mum and you've got one or two daughters it's $15 or $20 a month and some people just don't have that."

Whangārei woman Kylie Billington co-ordinates the Whangārei drop off points. She hasn't made any distributions yet but they will go to the Salvation Army and Youth Space.

Curves Whangarei managing director Elisabeth Hemming says the box has been in the gym a month and they had filled it up with around 10 packets of sanitary items twice.

"I've been blown away by the generosity of some of the ladies here."

However, she urged it wasn't just for members, anyone could stop by and donate products.

She says Billington contacted her asking about providing drop off point and she immediately thought: "That's totally something I want to support."

Hemming says it's something that makes a huge difference in people's lives.
"It's such a small thing but it's such a vital thing."

How to help:
You can donate sanitary items to:

The Red Box Project:
-New World Regent
-Habitat for Humanity, Kioreroa Rd
-Just Thrive, John St

One For Her:
-Curves Whangārei, Butter Factory Lane
-Hair by ME, Cameron St
-Automotive Solutions, SH1 Kauri
-Eko Hub, Finlayson St

For more information on these projects, search them on Facebook

To make a donation to:

KidsCan, go to KidsCan.org.nz
mycup.co.nz, buy a menstrual cup and My Cup NZ will donate another to the community