Guest blog by Poppy Taylor
In 2021 I completed a research project about menstrual education as part of my MSc degree in Sustainability. Here I share the findings.
Have you ever thought that your education about periods was lacking or limited? You are not alone. In fact, 94% of young women* think that their education should have been better.
Frustrated by my own poor experience of menstrual education (a ten-minute sex-segregated overview of periods coupled with a quick demo of pads and tampons), I decided to research the experiences of other young women, to establish the extent of this problem and crucially, explore how things might be improved.
During the summer of 2021, I invited participants to take part in online surveys and interviews to share what they learned (and what was missing) from their time at school. The findings were shocking but sadly, not surprising.
The research reveals widespread inadequacies; ranging from a lack of practical information and lateness in the delivery to attitudes which perpetuated the stigma. For 1 in 10 participants, education was missing altogether and for those who did receive education, up to 1 in 5 did not learn about periods until after they had started menstruating.
Approaches exacerbated the taboo
Around the world, menstruation is regarded as a key issue for gender equality. When menstrual needs are unmet, it can create barriers to education and employment, pose long-term health risks and threaten human rights. The persistent stigma and lack of public understanding about menstruation is preventing needs from being met in the UK and this research found evidence of the stigma being perpetuated in schools.
Several participants reported that the obvious discomfort in teachers delivering the subject, added to their own feelings of taboo. In some cases, this was made worse through jokes and sexist comments, particularly from male teachers and classmates.
“If they feel shame about it, why wouldn’t I?”
A common practice which exacerbated the taboo was gender separation. Although girls sometimes experienced bullying in mixed-sex classes, it was also noted that excluding boys contributed to a culture of secrecy and shame around periods. Boys were estimated to have missed out on half of all period education which, anecdotally, led to men having a poor understanding about women’s bodies and engaging in harassing behaviour later in life.
If we are to address menstrual needs and tackle the stigma, everyone needs to be included and lessons should be delivered in a way which challenges the shame surrounding periods.
Lack of health and practical information
Perhaps some of the most concerning findings from the research are those relating to health. Not a single participant was taught about menstrual health conditions and just 3% learnt about abnormal symptoms.
A lack of information about what constituted as normal was frequently reported. In some cases, this had serious consequences. For example, some women with healthy cycles thought they were ill or dying whilst others with debilitating gynaecological symptoms put off seeking medical attention because they thought their pain was normal. Several were later diagnosed with conditions such as endometriosis, which with better awareness, could have been treated years earlier.
Practical content about managing emotions, cycle tracking, menstrual pain, period poverty and stigma was also noticeably lacking. In fact, 7 in 10 received no information about these topics. Schools could play an important role in promoting body literacy and raising awareness about wider menstrual issues.
Instead, many had to rely on other sources – particularly the internet and social media – to seek this kind of information. This came with its own risks and poses a barrier for those who lack access to such resources, thus highlighting the need for universally accessible education.
Lack of sustainability content
Just 2% of young women were taught about sustainable period products compared to 85% for disposable pads and tampons, and less than 1% learnt about the environmental impacts which, as we know, are substantial.
Perhaps more encouragingly, 44% were taught not to flush products. However, given the fact that 2 billion menstrual items are flushed in Britain each year, it seems more awareness is needed in order to address this issue. Participants expressed a desire for more information about a variety of products along with discussion about their impact. Doing so would allow women and people who menstruate to make informed choices and use products that are best for them and the planet.
Recommendations for the future
This research provides strong evidence that the current education system is failing girls and young people who menstruate. Overall, 62% said their education was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ in preparing them for periods. We need and deserve better!
Whilst lessons tended to focus on the biology of menstrual cycles, participants wanted information that would actually help young people manage their periods and support their peers. Their suggestions for the future of menstrual education include:
- Earlier lessons – teach pupils at a younger age to ensure they are prepared before their periods start
- Practical content – provide useful information which empowers young people with an understanding of their bodies and how to manage periods
- Sustainable options – teach the advantages and disadvantages of a wide range of period products
- Inclusive classrooms – include boys and LGBTQ+ students whilst offering safe spaces to girls where needed
- Expert advice – provide accurate and relatable information which covers a range of topics including symptoms for gynaecological conditions
- Taboo-free attitudes – deliver lessons through open and non-judgemental discussions where pupils and educators can share their experiences
- Normalised discussions – talk about periods regularly from a young age and in a more ‘period positive’ way to normalise the conversation
- Support and understanding – ensure pupils have trusted adults they can turn to when facing a problem
With the issues discussed, it is important not to blame teachers, who are severely under-resourced and relying on limited guidelines. Even with the curriculum shake-up and introduction of ‘menstrual wellbeing’ as topic in 2020, the 50-page Relationships and Sex Education guidance, dedicates just one short paragraph to menstruation.
We must call on the government to provide better guidance. Prioritising a comprehensive school curriculum, alongside training and support for teachers, would enable a universal level of education for all children and help to create a more empathetic and accommodating society, in which no one is limited by their period.
*A limitation of this study was that it only explored the experiences of women aged 18-24 living in England. Periods are a truly global issue which affects us all – across every gender, age group and culture – and future research should explore the experiences of different groups.
Links to further information
Thank you to everyone who took part and made this research possible. More information can be found on the Planet Period website and Instagram account. If you wish to know more about the project, please get in touch!
Find out more about Environmenstrual