Inclusive menstrual health education is essential for equality By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association ---------------------------------- When do you think it became compulsory to teach menstrual health in schools in England? Ten years ago? Five? It was actually less than one academic year ago. In 2019, the government announced that menstrual health will be a compulsory part of the school curriculum for children of all genders, starting in primary school, from the start of the school year in 2020. 2020. This means that the group of children starting secondary school in September 2021 will be the first who are guaranteed to have been taught about menstruation, or having periods, in primary school. Most schoolchildren turn 12 years old during their first year of secondary school, and while this is the average age for periods to start, some children can be as young as eight when their periods begin. Some students could have already started their periods by the time they enter high school, without having had the opportunity to learn anything about them in lessons, or how to manage them. Lack of education leads to stigma While the future is looking brighter for menstrual health education for all genders in the UK (even though it is not yet compulsory in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the preceding years in which it was not a priority on the curriculum may have contributed to adults needing to seek out information about menstrual health later in life. I spoke to Monica Karpinski, founder and editor of The Femedic, a health media platform focused on women and people with vaginas, about the importance of education around periods. She said: “I know from my work and my research that there is a huge education gap around menstruation. Menstruation is the second most popular category on our site behind sexual health. You can see a real appetite for information which obviously communicates that the education is not there to fill that gap.” This education gap can have knock-on effects. Studies show that lack of education is one of the key pillars that maintains the stigma around all sorts of things that only affect certain groups of a population, including having periods. People who menstruate in the UK still experience high levels of period stigma. The statistics are worrying, particularly among young people. A poll commissioned by ActionAid showed that 37% of UK women said they had experienced stigmatising behaviour around periods, including bullying, isolation and jokes. Of those women, 77% said this behaviour happened in school. Plan International UK also conducted a poll of 1,000 14-21-year-olds who menstruate and found that 20% of them had experienced bullying around their periods, with 67% of this behaviour taking place at school. Over half of all the young people polled, 57%, said they had been subjected to negative comments about periods, including it being disgusting or shameful and so on. Premenstrual stress (PMS) is also an area around periods which people who menstruate faced stigma about. The Plan International UK poll found that 36% of the negative comments were about “perceived mood or behaviour.” Karpinski said: “In popular culture there are so many jokes about PMS, that people with PMS are unruly, they’re hysterical… It just breeds a culture where it’s okay to make fun of those kinds of things, and by the time you’re an adult, you’ve had those beliefs for ten plus years, so it’s much harder for you to let go of that.” Period stigma among young people is something of an epidemic. As a biological process related to reproductive organs, trans and non-binary people assigned female at birth have more to deal with than cisgender people. Karpinski said: “People of different gender identities might have different attitudes towards periods because obviously periods are very much presented as a female experience when they’re not – they’re a biological experience.” Transgender model and activist Kenny Jones spoke to NBC News about his experiences of menstruating as a trans man. “Having a period already causes me a lot of [gender] dysphoria, but this dysphoria becomes heightened when I have to shop for a product that is labelled as ‘women’s health’ and in most cases, is pretty and pink.” He added: “Stigma towards trans men, nonbinary and intersex individuals having them [periods] is still alive and well…People are still reluctant to the idea that it’s not only women that experience periods.” Facing shame-inducing stigma can impact the health and education of young people who menstruate. In the UK, 80% of adolescent girls have experienced concerning menstrual symptoms, but 27% reported that they were too embarrassed about discussing the topic to speak to a medical professional. Studies have found that nearly half of girls have missed a full day of school because of their period. Period poverty can also disrupt and add difficulty to the lives and education of people who menstruate. Mae Matauka, a trustee of The Vagina Museum and founder of Mino Period, told me: “It is important to remember that period poverty is not confined to just access to menstrual products. It also includes having poor knowledge of menstruation. This goes back to having more open and frank conversations about menstruation and more information and resources that will help to tackle the taboo, stigma and shame.” So how can things improve? If a lack of education feeds stigma, the solution is clear – increase education across the board. The new compulsory sex and relationship lessons, which, as well as menstruation, will cover topics including female genital mutilation and domestic violence for secondary school students, are for children of all genders, and this is a huge step forward. Including boys in these conversations and lessons from a young age is vital for creating a future society free from period stigma, and for improving scientific knowledge of how the body works. British period poverty campaigner Amika George, writing in The Guardian, said: “The taboo around periods is a form of misogyny, emblematic of the broader subordination of women. Not talking to boys and men about our periods means a quiet subservience, allowing separate, gendered spheres to exist, which validates the idea that anything outside the cis-male experience is abnormal.” Kapinski concurred that teaching all genders is preferred: “Ideally, if this was being taught in schools, you’d teach it in an inclusive way, so it wouldn’t be about genders, it would be about ‘this is what happens in this body part’.” Tes, a global digital platform for schools and educators, has published an article, sponsored by betty education, on how to teach menstruation to all genders in an inclusive way which could be used in the classroom and by parents. It suggests starting with some ‘menstrual myth-busting' in the form of a Q&A resource which answers some of the most common questions young people might have, such as “Can’t you hold it in?” and “Does it hurt?”. Another activity Tes recommends is providing the opening line of questions to get young people thinking about periods, such as “When you have your period, how do you… ?” and “Do menstrual cups… ?”. Period stigma is an obstacle to gender equality, perpetuating the othering of people who menstruate. Making clear, accessible menstrual hygiene education a compulsory part of the curriculum and wider science education is a key way to tackle this, building knowledge and improving lives.