Inequity has young advocates seeing red

Period poverty – the lack of access to sanitary products due to cost – is widely recognised as a major barrier to learning in schools and now a group of Year 12 students from St Paul's Catholic College, Booragul, have said enough is enough.

Last year’s ‘Period Pride’ report by Share the Dignity, found 1 in 5 people who menstruate use toilet paper or other unsuitable options because they can’t afford appropriate period products.

The report was based on responses from more than 125,000 Australians and written by Dr Jane Connory of Swinburne University of Technology. It also found that 49 per cent of respondents didn't have enough menstrual products and were wearing a pad or tampon for more than four hours at a time.

Disturbed by this reality the St Paul's students approached community leaders with a mission to promote greater equity, accessibility, and dignity for all students through access to free menstruation products.

Having all elected to study Community and Family Studies as a Higher School Certificate subject, the students requested a meeting with Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Director of Catholic Schools, Gerard Mowbray.

At the meeting the young advocates presented a survey which encapsulated the experiences of St Paul's female students.

Student Christina Swinsburg said the survey, featuring responses from female students in Years 7-12, highlighted the severity of the problem and motivated the group to create change.

The survey found 67 per cent of female students had taken time off school as a direct result of having their period and for 10 per cent this was directly related to a lack of period products.

"When we met with Mr Mowbray, we used the data we collected at St Paul's to demonstrate that periods, and the lack of ready access to free menstrual hygiene products, is disadvantaging students and impacting their education," Christina said.

Christina said that as part of the Community and Family Studies syllabus taught to them by Nicole Burns, the Year 12 group had learnt about community concerns, access to services, and the marginalisation of groups in society.

"At the same time we were covering these topics in class and there had been some discussion in the media about the shame, silence and stigma associated with periods, and so we wanted to change this."

Over 90 per cent of students surveyed said having free access to sanitary products at school would be beneficial, citing reasons such as: cost, convenience and dignity. Enacting this change became the students ‘s primary goal.

Fellow Year 12 student, Alexandra Holliday, said the class had also identified the parallels between their campaign and social teachings, which promote the dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity and preferential option for the poor.

"This matter is important to us as every person deserves access to items of necessity. The greater equity we have in schooling systems, the more we can create a respectful and inclusive society," Alexandra said.

Their peer, Charlotte Ferry agreed, adding that “Period poverty is a significant matter as it does not only affect menstruating individuals in underdeveloped countries, but it also those in wealthy countries. It causes physical, mental, and emotional challenges and illuminates the stigma surrounding periods."

Mr Mowbray said he was impressed by the Year 12 group’s advocacy and passion which aligned with the goals of a new Diocesan Steering Committee, formed to provide better support and awareness for people who menstruate.  Alexandra, Christina, Charlotte, and their teacher Nicole Burns accepted an invitation to join the committee. The committee also comprises staff from across the Diocese, parents, and an external consultant.

First up on the Committee's list of objectives is to implement a trial of freely available menstrual hygiene products at St Paul's Catholic College, Booragul. Different suppliers and dispensing units will be trialled, with student feedback collated to help inform the roll-out to other school locations.

Chief Operating Officer for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and fellow Steering Committee member Lisa Tierney said that the Diocese acknowledges menstruation impacts a significant portion of its workforce and schools' population.

"We are committed to making the changes necessary to ensure that all staff, students and service users have the means to participate fully in the life of the Diocese and ensure no one is left behind," Mrs Tierney said.

"In addition to facilitating the trial at St Paul's, the Committee will also focus its attention on developing an awareness campaign for all schools, as well as a policy that will help reinforce the promotion of dignity, gender equality and reproductive health," Mrs Tierney said.

Dr Michelle O'Shea is a gender equality researcher and joins the Committee as an external consultant.  Together with a team of multidisciplinary Western Sydney University researchers, Dr O’Shea recently launched a new white paper entitled ‘What’s the Bloody Big Deal? How Australian workplaces and educational institutions can help break the menstrual taboo.’ The white paper presents important evidence that changes are overdue to ensure that Australian girls, women and people who menstruate are supported to participate in education and work in their best capacity.

Dr O'Shea said she was passionate about being involved on the Committee, and taking on the role of project manager, as she wanted more people to talk about menstruation "because people are suffering in silence".

“The challenge we all face as Australians is that women and girls are missing out on education and work due to a lack of infrastructure, policies and practices in place to ensure that having a period doesn’t stop someone from learning or working,” she said.

Mrs Burns agreed and said she was heartened to see her students present such a strong, collective voice and that the Diocese had been so receptive to their mission.

"I am so proud of their work as change makers. The entire process has been a way for them to see the impact that they can have on the world," she said.

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Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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