Make sanitary bins standard in primary schools - researcher

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An Otago University public health researcher says sanitary bins should be standard in primary schools, following the story of a 10-year-old girl sent home because she was on her period.

The anecdote was shared by a GP with Dr Sarah Donovan recently during her research into the impacts of menstruation in women and girls.

"He had a patient come to him with her 10 year-old daughter and her mother was at a loss as to what to do because her daughter had been asked to stay home each month when she had her period or it was suggested she be put on a contraceptive pill," she says.

Dr Donovan says it isn't an uncommon story that girls as young as 10 have begun menstruating.

But while she says most schools would manage that situation properly, in this case "it wasn't handled well".

"It would likely be unusual for a principal to recommend a student stay home," she says.

Her research had shown only some primary schools were equipped with sanitary bins for pupils.

"In a sense you can't blame them because we don't have up-to-date data about what age girls get their periods, so some primary schools wouldn't be aware," she told Newshub.

The Ministry of Education says schools make their own decisions about what facilities to provide their students and "by far the majority do a very good job".

Deputy secretary of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, says she'd be surprised if the anecdote Dr Donovan was told was correct.

"That's disappointing from our view because we try to provide as much support to schools when issues like this occur.

"If it did happen as reported this isn't a caring way to respond at all, nor is it sensible," she says.

The Ministry says it wants to follow up with the school, but it does not know which one it is.

"Most teachers and principals are very understanding of the health needs to their students and we are confident that most, if not all, when faced with this situation would simply organise a sanitary disposal unit."

Dr Donovan says that inconsistent approach will likely change when new data about the age of first menstruation is made available at the end of the year as part of the New Zealand Health Survey.

She hoped that would inform better policies around sanitary bins.

"Just because a girl might get her period at that age, the girl or the family might not necessarily tell [the school] that's occurred, so it might be better to have a policy where you provide for that as a standard approach."

The data could also help better target health programmes for students.

"When you're teaching girls about reproductive health and periods and things, you're not necessarily going to pitch those modules at primary schools because you think it's too soon, but in reality they might need to have a rethink," she says.

She believes those programmes should also include practical advice such as strategies for dealing with pain and what to do if you can't afford pads or tampons.

Dr Donovan is currently preparing an application to Pharmac to subsidise pads and tampons for schoolgirls.