The push for free pads and tampons: As basic as toilet paper in schools

A shift is under way on an issue of gender equity, and it could lead to meaningful changes in schools in NSW, the ACT and beyond.

In the last few years, every state and territory in Australia has introduced measures to provide free pads and tampons in government high schools. It’s part of an effort to combat “period poverty” – a lack of access to period products and education about menstruation.

Almost 50 per cent of menstruating students regularly skip school due to their period, a 2020 national survey showed. Research by the University of Western Sydney has revealed that inadequate support around menstruation disadvantages Australian women and girls in their education, leading to outcomes including absenteeism, and poorer academic performance.

Last year, the ACT took the fight against period poverty even further, becoming the second jurisdiction in the world to pass legislation requiring free products in designated public spaces, including hospitals, universities and TAFEs.

The Period Products and Facilities (Access) Act 2023 came into effect on 23 December 2023. It doesn’t apply to non-government schools but Labor backbencher Suzanne Orr, who introduced the bill, told the IEU she hopes the legislation will inspire others, including Catholic and independent schools.

Not just for government schools

While there is no law requiring non-government schools to make pads and tampons freely available, some aren’t waiting for policy to keep pace with social change and are simply choosing to provide the products.

One leading supplier of period product dispensers, Pixxii, has installed 63 dispensers in non-government school bathrooms around the country, including two in the ACT and 32 in NSW. Another provider, Share the Dignity, has installed 19, one of which is at Indie School in Fairfield, NSW.

Just because “people can afford for their daughters or children to go to a private school, doesn’t mean that they’ve got cash for everything”, the Founder and Managing Director of women’s charity Share the Dignity, Rochelle Courtenay, said.

“Like anything with shame, once you have conversations and you give it sunlight, you remove the shame, right?”

A basic amenity

Having free pads and tampons in schools is about “ensuring that no girl misses out on a day of education because her family can’t afford period products”, said Courtenay.

Dr Michelle O’Shea, an academic at the University of Western Sydney who recently helped spearhead a period positivity program at St Paul’s Catholic College, Booragul, says pads and tampons are a bathroom necessity like soap or toilet paper.

Both O’Shea and Courtenay believe free pads and tampons shouldn’t just be for students – period poverty can affect teachers and support staff too. “I will never forget meeting a teacher’s aide at a school who talked about having to cut a pad in half because her husband had lost his job,” said Courtenay.

Think bigger

Schools also need to think beyond product provision, to broader policies and practices that can “enable women and girls’ full participation in their education”, O’Shea said.

For too long, periods have been a source of shame, she said, and that stigma can prevent students from asking for a pad if they need one or telling their teacher they are in pain.

Both O’Shea and Courtenay believe education can destigmatise periods, with teachers playing a critical role. Such lessons can’t just be for girls, they argue. It only reinforces the idea that periods are something to hide.

“Like anything with shame, once you have conversations and you give it sunlight, you remove the shame, right?” said Courtenay.

Lucy Meyer

Period poverty: Resources

If you’re interested in teaching students about period poverty, there are resources available.
Period Talk: A comprehensive education program for boys and girls in Years 5-8. Presented by Share the Dignity, it is for kids,
by kids:
Libra Educators: The Complete School Resource Kit: Developed with teachers, this toolkit includes lesson plans and interactive resources from the brand Libra:
Partner with the University of Western Sydney: Researchers at the University of Western Sydney have invited educational institutions to partner with them to implement menstrual policy and meet institutional goals. More information can be found in their white paper, What’s the Big Deal? How Australian Workplaces and Educational Institutions Can Help Break the Menstrual Taboo:
How one school did it
Read how a student-led initiative led a Catholic school in regional NSW to introduce a period positivity program that proved so successful, it’s been rolled out to the entire diocese.
See “No more shame” in the new edition of IE (read here)