By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - V ictoria has become the first Australian state to provide free sanitary products in schools, prompting calls from women's rights advocates on Thursday for a nationwide drive to end widespread taboos around menstruation.
Victoria state, which includes the city of Melbourne, joined a handful of governments, including Scotland, this week by supplying public schools with free tampons and pads, as global awareness on so-called "period poverty" surges.
The A$20.7 million ($14 million) scheme would help girls in Australia's second most populous state to reduce "anxiety and embarrassment" and ensure they do not skip schools, the Victorian government said in a statement.
Women's rights campaigners urged other Australian states to also take steps in tackling a problem they described as hidden but common among indigenous and homeless women and girls across the country.
"Period poverty and period shame are really big issues for a lot of girls growing up in Australia," said Hayley Cull from women's rights groups Plan International Australia.
"Certainly more can be done, this is an important first step. We would like to see all states in Australia follow suit," the advocacy director told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Melbourne.
Indigenous Australian girls regularly miss school when they menstruate because they cannot afford sanitary items, a 2017 study by Australia's University of Queensland found.
Those who struggle to buy sanitary products often had to resort to using toilet papers or reusing dirty pads, said Cull.
"With period shame the issue doesn't get talked about as much as it should, so very often period poverty can go unnoticed and unaddressed," she added.
Australia this year scrapped a sales tax on sanitary products, following a petition by women's rights groups.
"Pads and tampons are just as essential as toilet paper and soap," Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said on his Twitter account on Wednesday when announcing the roll-out of the scheme.
"It's an Australian first, and it's the right thing to do."
Campaigns to tackle "period poverty" have slowly gained pace in recent years, with Scotland became the first country in the world last year to provide free tampons to all students.
In Britain, where an estimated one in 10 women are unable to buy sanitary items, the government in March launched a global period poverty fund to help them get access by 2050.
But menstruation is still taboo in many countries, including in Nepal where the centuries-old Hindu practice of "chhaupadi" banishes women and girls from their homes during their periods and has led to a number of deaths. ($1 = 1.4535 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)