A close female friend who is a “job seeker” went to WINZ because she had absolutely no money for food. After the usual evidence-providing procedures, her case officer provided her with a supermarket card. But when he gave it to her he carefully explained that the supermarket card was for “necessity items only”, and she could not use it for various “luxury items” including tampons and pads.
Is her case officer just a lone example of a stressed and harried WINZ employee? A lone ranger of necessity-zealousness who doesn’t understand that most women of reproductive age do in fact menstruate on a monthly basis?
Unfortunately not. Another female friend had a humiliating experience. She tried to use a WINZ supermarket card at the check-out at her local supermarket, and the card didn’t work. The cashier called WINZ to find out why the card wouldn’t work, and found out it was because she had tampons amongst the items she was purchasing. She had to return them.
The mind boggles. What does Paula Bennett want us to use instead of tampons and pads? Are tampons really the equivalent of wine and cigarettes? Does she think menstruating is something that women do for fun? Does she have any suggestions on how we could cut down on menstruation?
Supermarket cards are only given out when the beneficiary is in serious financial hardship. Nevertheless, the exclusion of tampons and pads from the list of “necessity items” that beneficiaries can buy when in financial hardship is a fairly extreme example of institutionalised sexism.
Institutionalised sexism is when an institution makes decisions that produces unequal effects on men and women’s lives. The decision-making does not need to be a deliberate attempt to undermine women. It may occur through the institution not sufficiently considering the different needs of women, or the gendered consequences of decision-making.
In this instance, the gendered consequences of WINZ defining tampons and pads as “luxury items” are fairly obvious. It means women facing financial hardship are put in a more vulnerable position then men. We cannot “choose” not to menstruate.
Paula Bennett, this is a new low. Not being able to buy tampons is frankly pretty third-world for New Zealand.
Just to update this story, Paula Bennett has taken to twitter confirming that tampons can be bought with payment cards, so this is not a decision that has been made at a policy level:
However, it shows to me – what many of you have astutely pointed out in the comments – that there is a level of confusion about what constitutes “necessities” and even “food items” with front-line WINZ staff ( and possibly also supermarket staff). Even if the WINZ staffer was incorrect in telling my friend that she couldn’t buy pads or tampons, this error is an effect of policy changes that make it harder for beneficiaries to receive their entitlements. For me, this interpretative error is still a consequence of institutionalised sexism, because it has unequal effects for the women who experience it. Multiple vulnerabilities come into play here, my friend is a young woman. It may be a case of WINZ staff being heavy-handed in their one-to-one interactions. Either way, the policy and information on the website needs to be made clearer.