Almost three quarters of girls left school early or missed a day because period products were not available, Stormont committee told – Belfast Telegraph

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Katrina McDonnell, from Homless Period Belfast, and Grace Boyle, from the Ulster University Students' Union Period Poverty Action Group. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton
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A lack of free period products across schools in Northern Ireland has led to up to 74% of girls having to take days off as a result, Stormont’s Education Committee has been told.
And with the uptake of a Period Dignity Scheme running at just 30% of schools in Northern Ireland, MLAs have been urged to back a Private Members’ Bill seeking to introduce free products in educational establishments.
The committee is scrutinising the SDLP’s Pat Catney’s Private Members’ Bill, which aims to make period products freely available to all in schools, colleges and public buildings.
Katrina McDonnell, from campaign group Homeless Period Belfast, told the committee there was evidence that some teachers have even been trying to provide period products for pupils from their own pocket, with many schools not aware of the current Period Dignity Scheme or finding the process of applying extremely bureaucratic.
“After going through the process, we have heard that at least one school in Belfast was allocated only £10,” she said.
“Where schools do have the necessary items available, we find that they’re often controlled by school nurses or the school office. Pupils have to leave the bathroom to go and ask for them,” she said.
“There is a requirement for these products to be available in toilets and that’s what we’re asking for. They should be available at the point of need.
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“We heard last week that 49% of girls had missed time off school because of this, but that’s the UK-wide figure. In Northern Ireland it’s over 70%.” No cost has yet been put on the cost of any scheme to provide period products in all schools and public buildings, which Homeless Period Belfast say is a basic human right, with MLAs estimating the total bill for providing products could run over £5 million.
“Can you really put a cost on health needs,” Ms O’Donnell asked MLAs. “Having a period is not a choice. This is a human rights and equality issue as well as a health issue.”
While saying she was in support of a plan to provide products, DUP committee member Diane Dodds MLA stressed it would be “very important” to have a business rationale behind it. “We do not want barriers to education,” she said. “This is incredibly important, but we need to explore the costing issues.”
Katie Bryce, from Homeless Period Belfast, said the results of a recent survey of girls carried out by the organisation showed 100% agreed that period products should be available freely in schools.
“Some 74% told us they had left school early or missed a day because period products were not available,” she told MLAs. “Figures like that show the impact this can have on educational underachievement.
“A further 53% told us they had to ask a teacher for products and 87% said the lack of availability negatively impacted their attention in class. Almost all, 91%, said they had just used toilet roll instead.”
Also giving evidence to the committee, Grace Boyle, from the Students’ Union at Ulster University, said students had started their own Period Poverty Action Group several years ago, and the uptake of provision had been enormous.
“The service we have managed to provide had been very widely used,” she told MLAs. “But we need to extend the service to other locations.
“By the time girls reach university age, they are already used to putting their own pads together, but there’s no doubt there’s a real and pressing need for this bill, and we need to make products freely and widely available to hep remove the stigma and embarrassment many still feel.”
Northern Ireland remains out on its own in being the only part of the UK not to have a permanent scheme in place to tackle period poverty.
If the bill, which is currently passing through the Assembly legislative process, is adopted, it would create a legal right of free access to items such as tampons and sanitary pads.
Bill sponsor Mr Catney said: “This is an absolute indictment on our history of mistreatment, discrimination and under representation of women and girls and their issues.”
The committee stage of the bill is due to continue until February.
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