Free tampons for high school students?

By Professor Nesta Devine
27 Nov, 2017

Labour MP Louisa Wall has recently shone a light on the fact that many New Zealand girls are missing school for days each month as they cannot afford sanitary items. She and others have called for sanitary products to be provided freely to teenage girls, but is this really addressing the root of the problem?

High school students

On the face of it, there can be nothing but applause for such a measure: the biology of girls and women should never be an impediment to their functioning in life. Missing school – more importantly, losing the thread of lessons and relationships – is likely to cause a cascade of negative experiences and thus impact on life’s chances for young women. ‘Dropping out’ of school is sometimes a result of and sometimes the trigger for exploitation.

But – why focus on this particular issue? Are young women still defined by their biological functions? Or is this reason for missing school relatively visible, and easily fixed? Are other issues such as child care, housework, paid work, malnutrition, illness, nursing of family members, disaffection with school, and so on, too hard to engage with as reasons for absence from school?

If a family is too poor to afford sanitary items for its girls and women, then surely the fundamental problem is poverty, of which this is a visible sign? And if sanitary products come low on the budget because of lack of recognition of the importance of the needs of the young women, then a different kind of education for families may well be needed.

Programmes which provide sanitary items for young women attending school have already been tried in Africa, Nepal and Vanuatu, with varying success. This research is described by development consultant Audrey Anderson:

While the studies … found limited/negligible effects of sanitary products on girls’ school attendance, … in the Ghana study, puberty education alone can positively impact girls’ school attendance. The Kenya study indicated that sanitary pads might contribute to preventing vaginal infections. In each study, girls overwhelmingly reported feeling less embarrassed when they had access to sanitary products. This finding is significant. As summarized by the Nepal study: “While increasing schooling for girls is a priority for development agencies, gains for girls’ overall well-being should not be underestimated.”

I suspect that the enthusiasm for this particular project has something to do with the notion that the young women are not responsible for their own poverty and therefore deserve assistance, whereas the adults in their families are members of the class of ‘undeserving poor’, whose fecklessness should not be encouraged by assistance. It amounts to ‘payment in kind’ through charity. ‘Payment in kind’ is usually to the advantage of someone other than the recipient.

This project, while pursuing a feminist concern for young women’s well-being, also capitalizes on a number of different tropes: the persisting fascination with women’s bodies, and fear of their potential dirtiness; the Victorian obsession with benefitting only the deserving poor; a policy of ‘payment in kind’ that was outlawed in labour laws in the nineteenth century.

Nesta Devine is a Professor in Education Philosophy at AUT and is focused on disrupting assumptions and influencing change in the sector.