In February this year, the Turnbull government tabled yet another underwhelming Closing the Gap report. While beautifully designed, the content of the report itself – as with previous years – showed little to no gains at all.
For example, while there had been improvements in year 12 attainment rates of Aboriginal people, we were – and still are – a long way off achieving parity rates of school completion. Literacy and numeracy rates barely moved while progress towards achieving the targets related to health had stagnated.
Adopting the same troubled expression that preceding prime ministers had when delivering the findings of previous reports, prime minister Turnbull stated that “we have not come far enough” and that there was still work to do. It’s an annual show, which, thanks to our ever-changing political leadership, has managed to have a new face attached to it each year to keep it fresh.
If Turnbull sees himself still at the helm next year and doesn’t want to do a repeat performance, perhaps his government should consider the provision of menstrual products and proper toilet and sanitation facilities at remote schools.
Reports earlier this week that Aboriginal girls from remote communities had been missing school during their periods came as little surprise to me.
On reading these reports, I saw a number of charitable organisations devoted to the provision of menstrual products to those in need step up and encourage people to donate so these girls had supplies available for them to access. The work such organisations do with homeless women, low socioeconomic status women and Indigenous communities in need is to be commended. Yet in my opinion, the very fact that we have to rely on the work of charities to provide pads and tampons in the first place is incredibly troubling.
Around half the population will undergo the normal, natural process of menstruation throughout the course of their lives. It’s bad enough that there are corporations getting rich off that fact while producing ads about blue liquid. It’s even worse that the government sees fit to continue having a tax on these items, treating them as luxuries rather than necessities and effectively financially penalising those who dare to bleed. Yet combine capitalist gain and government greed with service provision in remote areas: suddenly women and girls are expected to pay $10 per packet for the privilege of menstruating.
When vast portions of your family have had their welfare quarantined, or have been financially penalised because they have failed to adhere to their Community Development Programme placement guidelines in some frivolous way, it’s not hard to see why obtaining the products that would make a school day a damn sight easier would be out of reach.
But price is not the only factor. As mentioned in the reports, access to running water, working toilets, disposal facilities and so on is not a given in remote communities.
Just last weekend, I was in Alice Springs for a ten year convergence regarding the Northern Territory Intervention. Anecdotally, I heard not only of community members not being allowed to undertake simple repairs on local houses because repair works are controlled by the government, but also of sanctioned repairs taking months to complete and costing several hundred dollars for the most basic items, such as a replacement door lock or a washer for a tap.
That facilities in some community schools had fallen into disarray is unsurprising. That government agencies have allowed them to do so smacks of incompetence and neglect. Nowhere else in this country would it be okay for children to go to a public school without the provision of appropriate bathroom facilities – so why is it expected in a remote Indigenous community?
Finally we need to examine why there is shame attached to menstruation, within Aboriginal communities but also more broadly in society. The imposition of western religious doctrines that deem the process “unclean” thus excluding those who menstruate from participating in society still resonates today and leaves a lot to be desired.
When you combine these teachings with cultural taboos, it means that some children will end up isolated. Far from being unclean, menstruation is normal, is usually a sign of health and vitality and should be seen as such. Whether it’s the wise words of elder women who have been through all this before or it’s broader health programmes designed to educate on simple biology, more must be put into the development of educative programmes for society to ensure that shame around menstruation is broken down.
It is 2017 and Australia still cannot guarantee the most basic of provisions for Aboriginal girls to allow their full participation in society. We have such a very long way to go.
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