No, Paula: Nits are a Symptom, but Poverty is the Cause.

Paula Bennett has announced the Government will provide nearly $1 million funding through the Ministry of Social Development to KidsCan to manage head lice in low decile schools, see Scoop.

Paula Bennett goes as far as admitting that the cost of nit treatments is prohibitive for poor families:

“Although nits are found in all schools, children from low-decile schools, and particularly their parents, could use help in dealing with nits. Treatment can typically cost $30. Combine that with several heads in the household and the problem becomes extremely expensive. This initiative will allow for whole families to be treated if necessary. It can be a struggle for some families to keep on top of infestations. We hear of children having their heads shaved and severe scalp infections where unsuitable treatments are used”.

My problem with the Government working through KidsCam to treat kids for nits at school (including hairdresser style chairs) is that it is the worst type of “ambulance at the end of the cliff” program typical of poorly conceptualised development programmes.

Nits are a symptom Paula, but poverty is the problem. Only treating the nits does nothing to change the living conditions of the child overall. Kids will be just as hungry and cold and poorly educated, without nits. They will be as vulnerable to the next illness that comes along, that their parent or parents will also not be able to afford to treat.

Changing poverty in New Zealand is a different matter.  You could increase the minimum wage to a living wage so that families can provide the essential costs of living. You could increase the base rate of the unemployment benefit, so that children in beneficiary families are not punished for their parents lack of employment. While you were at it, you could implement changes in the culture of Work and Income New Zealand, so that beneficiaries are not bullied and shamed during the application process. You could create jobs.

It’s hard to say if the programme the Government has announced will even work, here are some problems with it:

  • Nit infestation is about needing treatment, but it is also about overcrowded living conditions where lice can easily be passed from head to head. I think kids are likely to keep getting them back from other family members, who will still not be able to afford to treat them.
  • National loves to pretend it keeps out of people’s lives, but I can’t think of a more “nannying” intervention than treating people’s children for head lice!  What it really means is that they are unable to address the impact of income inequality, but children from lower deciles are able to be subjected to more policing than other children. How are the kids going to feel about having people who aren’t their parents come in and treat them for head lice? How will parents feel about it? How is the potential bullying that might occur towards children who are treated for head lice going to be managed? Will it feel like another instance of micro-agression or minority stress for Pacific kids who are already subject to ongoing micro-agressions?
  • Do you even understand how Pacific communities are going to feel about having people come in and washing their kids hair?
  • Money spent on hairdressing chairs, basins, and either paying or subsidising the travel costs of the hair washers (it’s not clear how the program works) could be spent directly on families in need, who could then treat nits in their own home.
  • It could put more pressure on teachers, and take kids away from learning while they are being checked, washed, dried and nit-combed at school.

No Paula Bennett, Tampons and Pads are Not “Luxury Items”: WINZ and Institutionalised Sexism

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.