The need for Dignity and education

It’s been a fast-paced year for Jacinta Gulasekharam and Miranda Hitchings.

Inspired by their own experience of not being able to afford sanitary items while at university, they took this situation to an entrepreneurial boot camp to try find a solution. 

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The end product was Dignity – a social enterprise which encourages corporate companies to buy sanitary items for their staff and donate sanitary items to nearby schools. 

"On average, women pay around $15,000 over the course of their life on sanitary products.” - Hitchings

They started with one school and now Dignity is providing 25 schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch with sanitary items.  

“We’ve really scaled up to a whole new level by partnering with companies like Xero, Flick Electric, Cigna and ANZ. We now have a waiting list of schools in Dunedin and Palmerston North waiting to receive sanitary products as soon as we can find additional businesses to support them,” says Gulasekharam.

“We want to keep it local by matching businesses with schools that are nearby.”

Since graduating, Gulasekharam and Hitchings run Dignity whilst also working full-time work. Hitchings is a consultant and works with UNESCO on a global comprehensive sexuality education advocacy campaign in developing countries.

“Working with Flinch and Dignity has allowed me to gain an understanding of the importance of having an open cultural rhetoric on issues surrounding gender and puberty, as well as the importance of culturally appropriate and gender-sensitive solutions,” she says.

Meanwhile Gulasekharam is a business development manager and credits flexible working as a key factor in being able to balance her career and Dignity.

“The concept of a portfolio career is a path that will become more common for millennials wanting to work for several organisations at the same time,” she says.

Hitchings and Gulasekharam give a full day to Dignity, plus working on the initiative after finishing their working day.

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Pic: Jacinta Gulasekharam (left) and Miranda Hitchings. Source: Provided

“When we first started Dignity, we wanted to help provide a solution to the ever growing, but not often talked about, issue of period poverty,” says Hitchings. 

“Initially, we thought we were creating a B2C app that would take the burden out of planning your period. But we soon realised the biggest contributing factor periods had on women was this sense of unfairness.”

This unfairness is credited to the fact that on average, women pay around $15,000 over the course of their life on sanitary products. “That’s a hefty chunk of a house deposit,” says Hitchings.

They also knew that progressive workplaces were on the lookout for diversity initiatives that actually make a difference.

Research tells us that despite the huge progress women have achieved in the workplace, we are still sometimes lagging behind,” says Gulasekharam.

“While this is a multifaceted and complex issue, one of the strongest reasons this is occurring is because of a lingering workplace culture that is geared to supporting men, but not so much for women.

“When businesses create small, sustainable cultural indicators that show they care about their female staff too, the workplace culture begins to shift,”

Gulasekharam and Hitchings ran a survey at ANZ’s offices in Wellington found that female staff believed they are 82 per cent more personally supported in their workplace with the Dignity initiative.

“We know that providing pads and tampons in the bathroom isn't going to solve all gender diversity problems but it is a small step towards wider diversity goals. And it's incredibly motivating being part of that change,” says Gulasekharam.

The pair found out that female students’ education was being negatively impacted by the high cost of pads and tampons too so they went directly to schools to find out more.

“What we've found is pretty heartbreaking,” says Hitchings. “Period poverty is real, it is impacting girls all over New Zealand - not just the ones you would typically expect - and even worse is that it isn't often talked about.”

Hitchings says that until recently this has been an invisible issue and as a result, very little has been done.

“It's been trial and error for us. We had no idea what the impact would be and if it would take off but the response from businesses has been incredible and the feedback from schools is showing that Dignity is making an impact to improve education,” she says.

As its largest partner, ANZ plans to offer the Dignity initiative at all its 12 corporate offices throughout New Zealand from 2019 followed by all branches.

“We’re really concerned that girls are staying home from school each month because they can’t afford sanitary products and want to do our bit to change that,” says Felicity Evans, ANZ General Manager Human Resources.

“We see sanitary items as being like any other practical consumable in a workplace, such as coffee and tea or soap. We support the work of Dignity in making sanitary products a normal part of every workplace.”

Susana Lei’ataua is a bluenotes contributor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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