It’s difficult for people to fathom the idea that a first world country like Aotearoa is affected by an issue like period poverty. The co-founder and director of social enterprise Dignity, Jacinta Gulasekharam, says “the latest Youth19 NZ research showed that of the 7700 young people with periods they surveyed, 13% said they found it difficult to get menstrual products. The number was closer to 20% for Māori and Pacific people. The data also showed that one in 10 students with periods missed school because of it.”
The existence of barriers to basic menstrual products and information is not simply a ‘women’s’ issue. It’s a very real human rights issue with implications for health, education, and wellbeing that continues to drive the cycle of inequity for our people. Gulasekharam and friend Miranda Hitchings recognised the issue for what it was and ended up co-founding Dignity – a social enterprise based on a buy-one-give-one model that last year provided over 172,382 sanitary products to those in need; including schools and Teen Parent colleges, high need Family Planning clinics, the Wellington City Mission, and Samoa during the measles outbreak crisis.
It started off as an idea between two friends, grew out of the Viclink Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, and in the space of three and a half years has expanded to become a B corp certified business and wellness movement improving the lives of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. “The real motivation is because we care, Gulasekharam says. “We care about gender equity, we care about normalising periods and we care about access to period products.”
Despite Dignity’s impressive growth, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. “It's been hard to be taken seriously as women in business,” Gulasekharam says. “We sometimes get called those "Dignity girls" or "girl-bosses" when you'd never call Mark Zuckerberg a "boy-boss". Language is a big part of our journey as we've had to evolve to make sure that as an organisation we are communicating in an inclusive way.”
It’s not just a commitment to inclusivity that demonstrates Gulasekharam and Hitchings’ visionary leadership, either. They have ensured that their business is kind to the planet (Dignity distributes organic period products and have been carbon neutral with Ekos for three years), they continue to campaign for broader systemic change (their Positive Periods petition received by Hon Julie Anne Genter is now sitting with the Education and Workforce committee), and they are now focusing on growing their corporate partnerships “so we can have a bigger impact on period poverty… We are keen to reach out to more community organisations that have people facing period poverty outside of the school network.”
The impact and ongoing growth of Dignity is inspiring. However, the business remains level-headed in their assessment of their “small part in changing the status quo.” Rather than simply focusing on “a band aid solution”, Gulasekharam says that they would like to see in Aotearoa the “awesome nationwide policies to provide free period products” that have been enacted by governments in countries like the UK, Wales, and Scotland.
And in the meantime, they will continue with their efforts to eradicate period poverty in Aotearoa, one product at a time. Efforts that – according to the feedback they have received from schools – have reduced shame, improved self-esteem, increased participation in sport, and reduced the financial burden on teachers/nurses who were paying for items themselves. “It just feels like the right thing to do,” Gulasekharam says. “[To] do something practical about an issue and make a difference.”