Guest post by Hannah Whelan
Education has long been seen as pivotal the menstrual health, but an increasing body of research is showing a gap between policy and practice. Menstrual health researcher Hannah Whelan shows us how this is playing out in the United Kingdom.
The morning school bell has rung and the students file into and find their seats. A reluctant volunteer is handing out the textbooks for today’s class. As the teacher, you’re writing the starter activity on the whiteboard. Between making sure the students are dressed in their proper uniform and the seating plan is adhered to, you become aware of a female student lingering close by. As you direct the pupils to page 188 of their books, you catch this young girl’s eye and smile inquisitively. She appears confused, upset and urgent for the bathroom. She tells you she’s just started her period and you realise you don’t know what to do.
Earlier in the year, an American high school teacher posted on Reddit to talk about these situations in schools. The teacher outlined one experience where a fourth grader (aged 8–9) went to the bathroom and never returned. When the student was checked in on, she refused to come out of the toilet and pronounced she had “pooped her pants but in the front”, showing how oblivious she is to the idea of a menstrual cycle. In their post the teacher said, “You cannot control when you get your period, but you can sure prepare your daughters for it. Please do so.”
Yet the post is somewhat misguided. There is no denying that teachers also have a vital role to play in helping children understand menstruation. According to Plan UK, 26% of girls didn’t know what to do when they started their period in the United Kingdom, 49% have missed school when menstruating, and 68% of adolescent girls reported to have felt less able to pay attention in class whilst on their period. It is evident that menstrual health is a critical topic at home and in the classroom.
So, are teachers equipped with the right resources to support adolescents during menstruation? Or, are they completely daunted by the prospect?
Plenty of tools have been created in the hopes of breaking the silence around menstruation. For example, Zana Africa’s Nia Teen magazine (which is attached to The Nia Project) publishes menstrual education content for Kenyan girls with the aim of improving health, agency, and changing behavior around period taboos. Teachers around the globe have access to period board games, playful comics, and colouring books to help classroom conversations.
In reality, however, these resources aren’t very effective due to them being unobtainable on the ground (not to mention menstrual products themselves). As a result, teachers are ill-equipped to discuss taboo topics and the curriculum inconsistently address periods in schools. Menstrual product corporations often take advantage of this, by sending spokespeople and branded materials into schools, which encourages the broken system that led us here.
Thankfully, a new Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) curricula is soon to be rolled out across the UK. But will this bridge the gap between policy and practice?
Plan UK certainly hopes so. In their recent report, the organisation has made recommendations for the UK’s menstrual education. The report outlines how school children require appropriate access to toilets and sanitary facilities, how menstruation should be taught beyond the biology lesson, and how teachers need to be supported when discussing too often prohibited topics (such as periods).
Plan’s recommendations will press politicians as SRE becomes statutorily required across the UK in both primary (aged 6–10) and secondary schools (aged 11–16), and will grab attention as political parties claim to reform their own policies around the subject.
Chella Quint, founder of #periodpositive and core member of the Sex Education Forum, has been advocating about such procedures for over ten years. Quint’s #periodpositive school programme has been selected by charities Brook and FPA as a best practice resource for SRE – already taken on as a citywide initiative across Sheffield.
And the SRE reforms are evidently needed, as menstrual education appears quite different on the ground across the United Kingdom.
Emily Stewart from Bristol-based Real Period Project, believes there are huge variations in tackling the topic of menstrual health in schools in the UK. The Real Period Project is piloting an education program about periods and the menstrual cycle for primary school girls and boys aged 9-11 and Emily has experienced the disparate quality of SRE currently on offer.
“Some primary schools have taken on a more thorough approach to menstrual cycle education, starting early and coming back to the topic each year. Othersremark on how they have a lot of room for improvement – a sort of ‘deer in the headlights’ response,” she said.
Emily is cautiously hopeful about the new SRE reforms and hopes the variations in menstrual health education will change as teachers are given proper training on the topic and as resources become more abundant and diverse.
Despite SRE being more commonly taught in secondary schools, teacher training around menstrual health is also a bone of contention within UK high school settings.
Math teacher Andrew Sharpe described the lack of preparation given throughout his career.
“I never had preparation or guidance. Even in my initial teacher training, nothing was mentioned about periods, or what to do [about them].”
Andrew says that this would be an ideal time for prospective teachers to be made aware of how to approach the topic.
Within the international community, the need for teachers to be trained properly has also been highlighted. In October 2017 the Menstrual Hygiene Day team commented in a tweet on how the “Training of teachers is key” for making periods normal during the Menstrual Hygiene Management in Schools virtual conference.
Ultimately, the menstrual liberation we’re currently seeing at the highest levels of policy and research must lead to the liberation of the hearts, minds and bodies of young menstruators. Educational policy is a pivotal point in making that happen.
Hannah Whelan is a menstrual health researcher and writer based in the UK. Hannah is presently writing for Ruby Cup, having collaborated with enterprises such as Eco Femme and presented at events including the SMCR conference earlier in the year. Hannah will be ovary-acting alongside fellow menstrual champions at the #freeperiods protest taking place on the 20th December in London – join the movement here!