Every school year there’s a relatively unknown issue that keeps numerous girls out of class for up to a term. Perhaps surprisingly that issue is access to sanitary products. The problem has been termed period poverty, and given there’s a social stigma attached to speaking openly about menstruation, historically little has been done to address it.
It doesn’t just affect school students either, a recent study by Women for Independence in Scotland — a country with a similar standard of living to New Zealand — found that nearly one in five respondents said that they’d had to go without sanitary products because of financial problems, opting for substitutes such as old clothes or newspaper; another 22% reported they were unable to change their products as often as they would like to; and 11% described a significant health impact because of it, such as urinary tract infections.
With a monthly cost of around NZ$30 for pads or tampons, it’s estimated that hundreds of women are affected by period poverty every year because they simply can’t afford the increasingly high price of sanitary products. Then there’s rent, mortgages, families to raise, school fees to pay.
But who’s listening? In 2017, suggesting a lack of concrete data around the issue, PHARMAC’s Director of Operations stated that sanitary products weren’t ‘medicines or medical devices’, justifying a decision not to help subsidise the costs of pads and tampons, even if they are sold by companies seeking to make a profit.
It’s clearly a global issue, yet one that most policy makers seem to have thrown in the ‘too hard’ basket, and for many families in New Zealand it’s an increasingly significant problem, with recent discussions pointing to evidence that the issue is far more widespread than first thought.
Thankfully there are social enterprises whose work is making a real difference, both here and around the globe.
Wellington-based Dignity are tackling the problem head on, and have employed a buy-one-give-one business model — similar to Eat My Lunch — that aims to provide access to sanitary items for all women in New Zealand by working with progressively minded corporate partners.
“We had heard a lot of terrible stuff about girls missing out on education, because of period poverty — because of not having access to tampons — and we’d heard about the social enterprise Eat My Lunch, who’d done really well with lunches in schools, and thought, we could try and replicate that with a similar model,” Dignity co-founder Miranda Hitchings says.
Progressive, inclusive organisations such as Dignity’s partners Flick and XERO have quickly understood that providing sanitary items to their female employees is just like providing coffee or having hand towels in the bathroom, Miranda explains. “It’s just another office consumable.”
That made the buy-one-give-one model an obvious choice for Dignity, with the number of sanitary items purchased by these companies for their employees given to school girls in need, the campaign makes an impact in both schools and workplaces.
“The way the model works is that the businesses buy the sanitary items for their staff, and the same amount for a school, and that sale includes the cost of our time, and things like that as well, so that we can theoretically pay ourselves, but we haven’t actually done that yet,” Miranda admits.
Although both Miranda and co-founder Jacinta Gulasekharam have full-time jobs, alongside an Operations Manager, they still find time to do everything, from marketing to ordering, boxing the tampons and contacting schools.
“We’ve had so much support from friends and family, in so many ways, and have really flexible bosses that allow us time off in the middle of the day to go to meetings, and things like that, and then obviously, Organic Initiative has given us a discount on the product, so we can afford to get a margin from it, which has been great.”
Dignity are currently distributing to ten schools throughout New Zealand, and they’re working to double those numbers within the next few months. They have been encouraged by survey data indicating that women felt 84% more supported with Dignity in the workplace, and that those companies are really proud that they’re supporting girls in schools at the same time.
“Period poverty is really complex in that it’s not just girls missing out on school because they don’t have sanitary items, it can be the high cost of it that impacts other areas of their life,” Miranda explains. “Families may forfeit other necessities in order to pay for tampons and pads.”
The complexity of the issue drives the team at Dignity, who’d like to imagine a world where sanitary products are free to all women, women who are likely to spend around $15,000 during their lifetimes on their periods, an amount, Miranda says that, “could be part of a house deposit or university fees”.
“We would just love it if all businesses in New Zealand had sanitary items in their workplaces to give to their staff, and that doesn’t necessarily mean through us, obviously the service we provide is good for bigger corporates because we can do the ‘heavy lifting’, but it’d be great if small companies, on their milk run, picked up pads and tampons too,” Miranda suggests.
Dignity are one of a number of social enterprises battling the historical stigma surrounding period poverty to make a difference in practical ways, such as Supreme Malawi, who provide women and girls access to safe and affordable solutions for their menstruation.
Supreme Malawi’s aim is empowerment, breaking down social restrictions and promoting sanitary health by not only manufacturing and distributing affordable, reusable pads, but also through education.
Launched in 2015, Evelien Post took over as owner manager from founders Hanne van Beek and Floris van der Stoep, her aim to scale up and increase the impact they could make throughout Malawi.
“I came to Malawi as a representative of a MicroLoan Foundation, and my predecessors had started laying the groundwork of Supreme in their own time.
“They made the initial design and tested it, and when I started in 2016 I registered Supreme Sanitary Pads as a limited company and transformed it into the social business it is today,” Evelien explains.
With a background in social work, women’s health in particular was close to Evelien’s heart, and when opportunity arose for her to combine previous work experience, her academic studies and her passion, she jumped at the chance to make a difference.
“You can imagine the massive struggles that homeless women face on a daily basis, trying to manage your period on top of that is very challenging,” Evelien says.
As Evelien explains, menstruating in countries like Malawi is problematic for most women, sanitary items are available in most towns but unaffordable for the vast majority.
“We’ve distributed more than 15,000 pads, we are working with 35 schools and three health centres, and have partnerships with five other NGOs who we support with advice in project design and setting up pad-making projects,” Evelien says proudly, explaining Supreme Malawi’s response to the issue.
To do this, the organisation employs five women full-time, and two more on a part-time basis, the majority of them locals, and given that a year ago there were only two workers, that number has grown significantly.
By creating employment and producing the product within the country they support the local economy, ensuring that knowledge stays within Malawi, and that local people are trained, while employees and the users of the pads feel uplifted.
“Girls and women are often ecstatic when they learn that our products are available in the shop around in the corner, especially in rural areas where there is very little access to anything,” Evelien says.
Supreme Malawi also act as local educators, giving free Menstrual Hygiene Management lessons in schools.
“We love going into schools and teaching school girls, it’s so encouraging to see the reactions when they realise that they can stop using old cloth which is — aside from the adverse health implications — very uncomfortable and unreliable,” Evelien explains.
Evelien believes what Supreme Malawi do is an alternative to the classical way of providing aid, as they cross-subsidise themselves, charging NGOs a higher price than they charge the local people and shops to make sure that the product stays affordable in the rural areas.
“What I find most rewarding is that loads of girls are able to attend school because of our products and that my staff enjoy great working conditions which uplifts them and their families.”
To find out more about these organisations, please see
Supreme Malawi: suprememalawi.com
First published in Philanthropy News, Issue #73 – May 2018