Many women and girls in New Zealand don't have access to essential sanitary items. Reporter Jenny Ling looks at the issue of period poverty and how it is affecting families in Northland.
When you're a solo mum with eight children - including four daughters - finding enough money for sanitary products each month is tough.
Anne Tau lives in a small rural town in the Far North and knows all about period poverty. She's heard the stories from previous generations and has felt the pinch of period poverty herself.
She's done the math.
At around $20 per month for each of her three daughters who get their periods, along with 41-year-old Tau, it sure adds up.
That's $80 a month she had to spend on pads and tampons, on top of the bills, rent, food, healthcare and school fees.
That's $1000 each year - just for being women.
"You could spend that money on bread and milk and food for your other babies," she said. "You're always thinking of your kids.
"Our sanitary needs always come first; I always made sure I had money for that but it was very much a struggle. That's a lot of money."
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For the former forestry worker who lives in Tautoro near Kaikohe, discovering reusable menstrual cups two years ago "was a godsend".
The one-off payment for the cups – which can last anywhere from six months to 10 years - has saved her a tremendous amount of money.
But it wasn't always easy as a woman growing up in the North.
She remembers skipping school with her cousins when she was a girl, especially on heavy days because there wasn't enough money to buy extra pads.
She recalls having to use paper towels from the school toilets because her period had arrived unexpectedly and she was too whakamā [shy] to ask the teachers for help.
"I remember some mates used rags as well - that's how it was back then," Tau said.
"We'd be walking around always checking each other because you're embarrassed it might have gone through. It's shameful when you're at school. You miss out on a lot of things in life."
Diane Heta also knows the realities of period poverty in Northland.
She is a Northland connector for Tukau Community Fund which partnered with My Cup NZ, a social enterprise which aims to reduce period poverty by providing reusable menstrual cups.
Tukau co-founder Season-Mary Downs set up the partnership in 2017, with the aim of converting women and girls in Northland.
So far more than 2500 menstrual cups have been donated to women and girls in Kawakawa, Moerewa, Kaikohe, Kaitaia and Kaeo.
Heta regularly visits families in small rural towns to distribute the sanitary items and explain to mums and daughters how to use them.
The mother of four daughters – three who are menstruating – all use My Cups.
While many Northland women have converted to them, and have found them "liberating", some are reluctant to use them.
Many families are still suffering from period poverty and the stigma that goes with it, she said.
"Large families of women don't always have a dad in the picture and these girls don't have the conversation with their parents. Girls are just making it up as they go along.
"Girls are using pretty much what they can find; towels, T-shirts, socks and toilet paper."
For those who can't access sanitary products because of the cost it means they miss out on school, work and other social activities.
Heta hears different stories around town, like the dance teacher who can always tell when her students are menstruating.
"They sit down and don't want to get up because they're embarrassed they've had a leak.
"Students are not going to school because they can't manage themselves at school. And when they fall behind in their education it's hard to re-engage them."
For Heta, there's no such thing as period poverty – just poverty, plain and simple.
"If you can't afford food, how can you afford sanitary products?"
IT HAS been estimated a woman spends an average of $15,000 on sanitary products over her lifetime.
This has a huge effect on low income families, large families of women and girls, and those from low-socio economic backgrounds.
KidsCan sought to understand the issue following growing concerns from teachers and principals about the number of girls missing school.
Almost a quarter of the 5000 New Zealand women who responded to its 2018 survey said they had missed school or work because of their period.
More than 50 per cent said they had found it difficult to access sanitary items due to cost at some point.
The latest Youth 19 study - led by Victoria, Auckland and Otago universities and AUT - has been touted as the most rigorous data that's ever been collected about period poverty in New Zealand.
Nearly 4000 students attending Northland, Auckland and Waikato schools were surveyed about their experiences of period poverty.
The research, released in February, found more than 21 per cent of students from low decile schools had missed school due to a lack of access to sanitary products.
Māori and Pacific students were most affected, with almost one in 12 missing class once a month or more.
University of Auckland associate professor Terryann Clark said these young women are missing out on important academic, sporting and social experiences.
"Our rangatahi deserve better, they deserve to have their basic needs met."
Clark – who is also the wellness and health promotions coordinator at Mahitahi Hauora in Whangārei – said period poverty is a symptom of much wider concerns that families have about providing the basics for their children.
"If families are struggling financially to pay the rent and buy food, menstrual products are the lowest priority," she said.
"We know Northland has really poor statistics on deprivation. We know our communities are experiencing huge poverty.
"If we can support our young women to have the best chance by providing menstrual products that would be a huge help."
Clark also knows of many schools that give out free products to students and has heard of teachers paying out of their own pockets.
And that period poverty in Northland disproportionately affects Māori.
About 8 per cent of young Māori girls are not going to school once a month or more, she said.
"That's really concerning. That's hundreds of young people who aren't going to school.
"It's not good enough; we provide toilet paper to children, why aren't we providing menstrual products as a normal part of support to our children's learning?
"When you talk to families, they are ashamed; they want their children to do well and have the best opportunities.
"But when it comes to choosing food or menstrual products, they're choosing food. That's an awful dilemma."
THERE is no such thing as period poverty at Bay of Islands College in Kawakawa – but that's largely thanks to KidsCan.
Principal Edith Painting-Davis said the school is proactive in seeking supplies from the charitable trust which also provides food, clothing and other health items for thousands of Kiwi kids.
The school has been receiving regular supplies of panty liners, pads, tampons and starter kits from KidsCan for the last four years.
There are numerous places where students can access the supplies, including the front office, student centre, marae and home economics block. Teachers also have supplies on hand, Painting-Davis said.
"Students know they can get products at school," she said.
"The younger ones are a little shy, but the norm here is to ask, and our people are so approachable here.
"We have access to food in the school and stationery and uniforms. We do as much as possible to minimise the barrier to student learning."
Bay of Islands College also teaches Year 9 and 10 students about menstruation during its sex education programmes and science classes, Painting-Davis said.
"For us it's about breaking down the barriers to student education. We target places we can apply for ... we target KidsCan more for period products.
"They are really good and really responsive. It's about equity, making sure students who can't afford these things are supplied with them."
Northland College Principal John Kendal said he was "acutely aware" of the issue.
Without the support of KidsCan, who keep the Kaikohe school well stocked with sanitary products, the school's 150 female students would be impacted, he said.
"Without their support we would see an impact on things like attendance and the wellbeing of our students. It's [products] expensive we do know that."
Though there is still a "wee bit of stigma" around menstruation, staff are discrete, and girls know to use a code word to access sanitary items at school, Kendal said.
"It's about letting our girls know we have support and that they do access it," Kendal said.
"We don't want them to miss out on opportunities and be away from school because of their period.
"Once they feel comfortable and know they can receive sanitary items, there's no reason to feel whakamā or embarrassed about things."
KidsCan has been providing sanitary items to decile 1-4 schools since 2013 and demand has risen steadily.
Last year it provided more than 30,000 packets of sanitary products to around 100 schools.
But Otago University public health researcher Dr Sarah Donovan – who has been studying period poverty for several years – doesn't think charities should have to foot the bill.
She has submitted an application to Pharmac to fund free sanitary products in all decile 1-4 primary, secondary and intermediate schools.
She wants to see menstrual products categorised as a health need.
Missing out on school reduces the life chances of young women over time, she said.
There is also the risk of infection from using socks, newspaper, toilet paper and rags which has been reported by some teachers, she said.
"If you're missing school because you can't control a basic bodily function, your right to health and education is undermined," Donovan said.
"There's also the mental health issue around shame and embarrassment because of the stigma of menstruation. No one wants to get caught short at school.
"The solution is for the Government to immediately fund schools so teachers don't have to, out of their own pockets, take pads to school, and charities don't have to keep filling that need as they are now."
Donovan's own research estimates nearly 100,000 students could be skipping school because of period poverty.
What is even more pressing is that girls are getting their periods at a younger age.
Donovan has crunched the numbers from the Ministry of Health's NZ Health Survey which shows nationwide, around 11,700 girls start menstruating at intermediate and 1900 girls start menstruating at primary school age.
Though she's not sure why – it could be the impact of environmental toxins or increasing body mass index in young girls – more support is obviously needed, she said.
And poverty aside, getting your period is often painful.
"The most common reason girls miss school or women miss work in any country is period pain. That in itself is a public health issue. Clearly there is a health need.
"If they're missing out on opportunities and social events because they're feeling lousy and can't afford pads – that's so backwards.
"If this was a boys' issue causing boys to miss school, I doubt we would still be struggling with it."