Have you ever missed work or school because you couldn’t afford to purchase menstrual products? Or needed to decide between buying sanitary products for yourself or a birthday present for a family member? This is the tough choice that Mārama, the lead protagonist in the film Super Special (2019), has to make when first getting her period. Written by Ruby Solly and Ashley Williams, the short film takes place over a day in Mārama’s life, when due to limited funds, she opts to purchase cake ingredients for her younger brother instead of period care for herself. As a result, she has to skip school and returns home with the groceries. Beyond period poverty, the film tackles multiple complex narratives as Mārama embodies both colonized and decolonized identities and orientations to the world. On one hand, her family is portrayed as a Māori whānau (family) impacted by historical urbanisation patterns and ongoing colonial continuities, visible through low socioeconomic status indicators in the film. On the other hand, Mārama’s grandmother is rich in support and mātauranga (Māori knowledges), and she offers this cultural wealth to Mārama by challenging Western menstruation discourses which are often steeped in stigma and shame.
Mārama’s character is representative of nearly one in twelve menstruating Māori and Pasifika students that miss school once a month due to inadequate access to menstrual products. This represents a significant health crisis that perpetuates cycles of disadvantage, since Māori and Pasifika students are over-represented in period poverty statistics. In Decile One schools in particular – schools that have the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities relative to other schools across the country – that number increased significantly to 21%. Addressing the issue, the Ministry of Education announced its aim to provide free period products to all students across the country in 2021; an initiative that has been praised widely by local activists, and received international coverage.
While period poverty remains an ongoing issue at present in the country, public discourses around menstruation are rare, marked by social stigma and exclusionary politics, and for the most part, kept outside of university classrooms. Simultaneously, the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in an increased demand for women’s charities, necessity donations, and refuge spaces given the pandemic-related rise in gender-based violence. Lockdown measures made it more difficult to leave violent spaces, while isolation from support services exacerbated financial dependencies, interrupted violence prevention programming, and limited women’s overall access to resources. In response, a number of community initiatives and donation drives also sprung up during this time.
Within this context, we took part in COMS305: Media and Social Change, a course at the University of Canterbury/ Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha in 2020. The course examined the relationships between media representations and social inequality, considered the political and ideological implications of media analysis and production, and resisted hierarchical education models by instead valuing community engagement and giving students some agency with respect to assessments. For their final group project, students were tasked with critically examining a media text through key conceptual frameworks. One group chose to analyse Super Special – and going beyond the course parameters – simultaneously initiated a menstrual item donation drive. In a few weeks, they gathered more than 1,000 period products for two local charities that work with family and sexual violence; Aviva Families and Te Puna Oranga, both based in Ōtautahi/Christchurch.
The Period Poverty initiative was subsequently featured in national media, and became the basis of a recently-published journal article in a Special Issue of Art & the Public Sphere where we draw on our shared lecturer/student experiences to collectively reflect on the initiative and consider questions that arose in response to it. Attending to intersectionality and ensuring our work was responsive to community needs was critical in this respect, as elucidated by one concern the group received about the one-time-use nature of the majority of the period products donated. While the initiative feedback was overwhelmingly positive, this particular comment prompted critical reflections on the interrelationships between the ways that gendered, racialised, and classed bodies were treated in public discourses around period poverty as well as commentary around single-use products and ‘environmental responsibilities’. We acknowledge that we could have considered the environmental impacts of single-use period products more, however, given the notable rise in gendered violence at the time of the initiative due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and the subsequent increased reliance on temporary housing and charities), the group privileged the convenience and affordability of one-time-use pads and tampons over purchasing reusable period products such as menstrual cups or period underwear which can be difficult to use without consistent access to hygienic facilities.
Another question we considered in our paper is how a feminist pedagogy of care might be extended beyond the academic sphere and into community spaces. We also examined whether amidst rising student debt and job uncertainty, was the expectation that students actively contribute to community initiatives fair? And which faculty or students in particular, is activist labour and community engagement frequently expected from? While New Zealand students are increasingly engaging within a number of activist spaces, marginalised students in particular see their activist work as a “responsibility and form of survival”. Simultaneously however, these students are also often erased in media coverage and political activism boot camps that disproportionately include white and privileged youth activists, while schedule clashes with major cultural festivals precluded some student activists from engaging in large-scale mobilisation events. And for those educators “whose bodies do not articulate the knowledgeable, wise, and capable ethos consciously and unconsciously attributed to white male professors”, or those whose work originates from feminist epistemologies or research-practice, supporting student-activists can come at an additional cost of not fitting into established department cultures, despite the fact that it is exactly those faculty members that tend to engage in more emotional labour and pastoral care to begin with. The increased prevalence of precarious and fixed-term employment for early career researchers in particular, exacerbates these issues.
So how can faculty support student-activists, particularly when their projects call attention to increasing social inequalities – and government delays in addressing them? While there is perhaps an element of unconventionality associated with lecturers co-authoring a peer-reviewed journal article with university students, we suggest innovative pedagogical methods, feminist care ethics (both within, and beyond university spaces), and indeed, publishers’ openness to supporting work which challenges the standardised boundaries of academic ‘expertise’ and publishing is precisely the kind of thinking that is needed to disrupt hierarchical and colonial education models. This praxis also speaks into wider concerns about scholar-activism, and the uneasy relationship between engagement with community work and the inclusion of such labour in academic promotion and/or scholarship metrics. Working closely alongside partner organisations to prioritise interrelation and “acts driven by the collective wellbeing of communities and ecologies rather than those motivated by self-interest”, is a critical concern all scholar-activists should share.
The set image is Lakyrah Ngarongo as Mārama in Roby Solly and Ashley Williams-directed film, Super Special (2019).