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Last month it was announced by the government that all schools across New Zealand will have free access to period products from late June. This was a big step in reducing the impact of period poverty and a huge achievement for those who have campaigned for the subsidy for some time. For one organisation in particular it was an incredible accomplishment – introducing Dignity. Founded in 2017 by Miranda Hitchings and Jacinta Gulasekharam, their goal was to help women across the country have access to period products and providing period equity for all. 

Here at Emma Lewisham we are incredibly inspired by Miranda and Jacinta’s ambition to provide free period products for the benefit of kiwi workplaces, youth and community groups. With their ‘Buy one, give one’ approach, it means companies can not only provide sanitary items to their staff, but also for those who are lacking access to pads and tampons, causing them to miss out on education, life and work. 

We sat down with both Miranda and Jacinta to interview them as part of our Emma Lewisham Changemaker series.  

Miranda and Jacinta, could you please tell us a little more about Dignity and why it is changing the game for periods…

In 2016 there was an opportunity to be part of a business bootcamp which Miranda and I signed up to. We went and asked people about a time they'd been caught out by their period and what the hardest part was. The largest frustration was the unfairness that period products weren’t freely available when you most needed them.We saw a gap for a tangible well-being initiative in the workplace to support diversity and needs for people on their period. We didn’t see why period products weren’t just another office consumable, like toilet paper. 

At the same time, news reports were beginning to identify that the cost and availability of period products was hindering people from participating in society. 

So we developed Dignity, a business that provides period products to businesses who then supply the items freely to their employees; we also give away the equivalent to those without access by supporting schools, youth and community groups.

We launched Dignity NZ in February 2017 and now have a team of four, have provided over 33,000 sustainable period products and have Dignity in 53 workplaces across NZ.

Was there a key moment that made you both aware that period care needed to be more accessible?

When we started our social enterprise with the mission to create access to period products, we saw a story on the news about girls missing out on school and knew immediately that we had to create a sustainable business model to have lasting impact. This story in November 2016 set us on a journey with our Buy-One, Give-One model to where we are today.

Could you please explain the concept of period poverty?

Generally, schools consider period poverty to be the inability to access sanitary items. The key barrier to period poverty is financial, however in some instances cultural and social situations may exacerbate the lack of access. 

What is the impact that period poverty can have on New Zealanders, in particular those in schools?

Period poverty is a complex problem that manifests itself in a myriad of ways and the impact of Dignity in schools has been multifaceted. Since the beginning, the reduction of absenteeism has been recorded. During Term 1 2019, 72% of schools mentioned that a core outcome of having free sanitary items meant their students were able to stay in school during their period. 

Schools noted many implications of period poverty, including:
  • Social embarrassment, stress and reduced self-esteem.
  • Making-shifting items out of ineffectual products such as toilet paper - increasing the risk of accidents and public bleeding.
  • Exacerbating Intergenerational poverty, and other social and gender issues.
  • Missing out on education, school sports and social activities during days when students have their period.
  • Increased workload from missing school and dealing with the stress associated with ‘catching up’. 

Other outcomes of the initiative include:

  • 81% felt it reduced feelings of shame for students.
  • 87% of schools felt it improved their students’ self-esteem.
  • 69% felt it improved their ability to partake in sport.
  • Donations resulting in teachers/nurses no longer paying for the items themselves occurred in 85% of schools.

Other anecdotal outcomes:

  • Relief and happiness
  • Improved cleanliness (not having to use toilet paper as pads)
  • Less visits to the school nurse
  • Reduced cost to families 

While it’s fantastic we have almost half of the schools in NZ signed up to receive free sanitary products, period poverty must extend further than the school demographic. Do you see this as the first step to period care becoming free or subsidised for all in NZ like it has been in Scotland?

Very much a first step! There are thousands of schools in New Zealand ready and eager for this program, we need to see an easy ordering system, stigma free way of accessing products and a range of choice provided before even starting to think about other areas the government can assist with. Eventually, we would love to see them providing sustainable products too (like menstrual cups and period underwear) as the requests for these products is growing. In the meantime we’ll aim to meet the demand for these products to students as best we can. 

We also work with other community organisations like Dress for Success,City Missions and libraries (where many displaced people spend time)  that provide our gifted period products to people in the community without access.

Our impact data is then shared widely to help with the broader conversation about government intervention. However, it takes time to get government programs rolled out effectively so we are watching this space and also how Scotland implements its wider program. 

What are the ways in which we can support Dignity – both on an individual level or encouraging our workplace to get involved?

Get Dignity at your workplace or take part in our Give One, Two, Three initiatives to help us provide products to those on our waitlist currently.

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