25 Mar 2019

The Period Crusaders -- how menstruation education is tackling taboos

After a childhood of learning not to talk about periods, multitudes of girls and women across Europe are ashamed of their monthly bleeds. This only makes menstruation seem more traumatic -- like a dirty secret.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
The Period Crusaders --  how menstruation education is tackling taboos - NewsMavens
Period education, PixaBay

However, now, for the first time ever, menstruation education will be a compulsory part of the English school curriculum from 2020. While it will be invaluable for girls to grow up with a greater understanding their bodies, campaigners think menstrual cycle lessons may also help burst period taboos.

A new generation of period educators in Europe have already taken matters into their own hands, bringing menstruation education to the masses.

Celia Hodson is the founder of Hey Girls, a social enterprise that aims to tackle period poverty -- when period-havers have limited or no access to products for economic reasons -- and destroy taboos around menstruation. For every box of chlorine- and bleach-free, environmentally friendly sanitary products it sells, another one is given to a low-income family in the UK.

Lydia Morrish for NewsMavens: Current guidance in schools on relationship and sex education allows schools to make their own arrangements on menstruation. What are the problems with this?

Celia Hodson: From experience, we’ve found the quality of education varies greatly from school to school from different areas. The frequency also varies greatly, so some schools teach in primary school and then have another chat in their first year at secondary school.

In some, it’s just an add-on to sex education. It’s usually one person within the school who becomes the ambassador to talk about periods and creates a way of doing it in a really engaging, conversational and interactive way. Many others don’t have the time to do this, so they do the bare minimum. There’s no consistency and there doesn’t seem to be an accepted way to do it. It very much relies on the commitment and enthusiasm and time available from teachers at different schools.

LM: This interview was inspired by a previous NewsMavens story about a schoolgirl on her period who was denied a toilet pass and bled through her clothes. Why was she denied the pass do you think, and what does this event say about how periods are seen in the UK?

Who knows why she was refused a pass, but maybe they didn’t understand what she was saying, what her need was, they didn’t believe she needed to go to the toilet for that… the teacher didn’t know how to respond appropriately so thought the best thing to do was shut it down. I don’t think you can second guess why somebody did something but it isn’t uncommon.

Girls do leak through to their uniforms. There are a lot of very poor quality products out there -- [with a] high plastic content, they’re cheap but they actually don’t work. A lot of girls we speak to tie their sweatshirt around their waist when they’re “on” because they’re worried about having a leak and with the sweatshirt it means you have more layers to go through before it’s visible. A lot of girls say “can you check me” to peers.

[This incident] was … quite a shocking thing to happen but it did raise a conversation which is what all this has to be about -- she was asking something very normal and it was treated as something abnormal. It was shocking.

LM: Can better education reduce period stigma and how does education interact with the way periods are treated?

In terms of shifting the dial on the conversation and making it okay to talk about menstruation, we have that conversation at every level you can imagine.

When I go in to talk to a group of teachers about how they’re dispensing menstrual products across the schools, sometimes [there is a] look of horror on their faces when I put menstrual products all over the conference table.

And then you think, “you’re in charge of our young minds but you’re embarrassed about a pack of tampons, how are you going to make sure they’re provided in an open way for pupils?”

We recently launched a campaign called Pads4Dads that was hugely successful. It was about bringing the conversation out and letting superhero dads that were the first to go buy products and bring chocolate cake back as well. Lots of dads said “I didn’t think about it, I’ve always left it to my partner or wife or the mum but now I’m going to learn about it and make sure I’m ready to have that conversation”. It’s been phenomenal at putting it out there.

It’s about being bold and having something out in the open. It’s such an undercover thing, it’s ridiculous, but that conversation -- ”Have you used a cup before? Well take one home and have a go” -- is the way to break down the stigmas around menstruation.

LM: How would you describe that need for involving and including everyone -- men, women -- in this conversation?

Some schools have said “let’s just do this for the girls” but we say “if the boys want to why would we shut them out?” We did one session and we sat around having the conversation with girls at their desks and the boys said “can we come in”, and the teachers said there was no room and they said “we’ll sit on the floor, we want to be part of this”.

Boys do want to know and they want to know about what’s going on for a girl when she’s starting her periods and the fascination of knowing about the subject but also how to be supportive, brothers, boyfriends and fathers.

Boys do want to know and if they’re interested we should be able to tell them. Maybe there are questions girls don’t want to [ask] in front of boys but you can always create a safe space for girls to ask those questions separately.

Our products and educational resources are for ages 8 to 80 and they’re for parents to use, teachers to use, brothers, sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, grandmas, grandpas, dads, mums. It has to be a conversation everyone can be involved in.

The other thing we’ve found from doing educational resources consultation is people don’t know at the beginning of their cycle what periods are about. Myths and taboos are around. If your best friend tells you something, you’re probably going to believe her.

At the other end, some women don’t know they’re going into their menopause. Some educated women who you think “surely you know” don’t know because we just don’t talk about it. We say “oh she’s having a hot flush” but we don’t talk about it just like we don’t talk about periods.

LM: What are the most surprising or extreme myths and misconceptions you’ve heard?

There’s all the ridiculous ones like you can’t wash your hair when you have your period or else you’ll go mad; you mustn’t go swimming; you’ll get eaten by sharks if you swim in the sea.

Girls think you can’t shower when on your period, but then there’s cultural and different nations’ approach like, you’ll turn milk sour, you can’t touch food. There’s girls who move out of house and live with their aunties when on their periods because they’re [seen as] unclean and can’t stay in the home.

There’s so much that sounds so ridiculous but actually if that’s what you’re told and brought up to believe then you think it’s right.

LM: NewsMavens readers and women have shared their experiences about the hardest thing about having their period when they were younger. What was yours?

I started my periods when I was at primary school aged 9, which wasn’t great. I’m nearly 60 so primary schools back then weren’t like they are now. There weren’t cubicles, it was a very different setup.

Being almost picked out as a special case because you started at school, everybody knew, so that was very uncomfortable. That’s the worst thing you can do to anybody, pointing you out that you’ve started.

You’re a baby, you’re such a young person and you don’t know why you feel like you do. Primary school is a very safe supportive place, so that's the last thing you want.

One girl at a primary school said she was so glad she had her period out of the way. And I asked why, and she thought you just had one and that was it. That made me wonder about the education she’d been given to believe she just had one. I felt very upset for her.

LM: The NewsMavens founder, who grew up in the United States, said periods were a thing almost to be celebrated when she was a teenager. Meanwhile, our readers from across Europe have told stories of keeping periods secret, being terrified of walking around with blood on their trousers, and not knowing how to use tampons properly, leading them to use pads for activities including swimming. It seems we are far behind in terms of period acceptance in Europe. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it is the norm that people would have their “moon party” or “egg party” or coming of age party and for mums to make quite a big thought of it. But that is such a foreign thought in the UK, and I don’t know why because we seem quick to adopt a lot of Americanisms. The whole prom and graduation has become a thing, but we’re very selective about what we adopt. I’ve never been to a first period party but it’s an interesting thing.

The message here would be “oh dear, I’m sorry you’ve started your period”. With the girl in primary school, it’s not something we go “wow amazing, go you!” We’ve got a lot to learn [about] stigma and taboos.

LM: Menstruation education is going to be compulsory for the first time ever in England soon, starting from primary school. What should be included on the syllabus so that children aren’t just taught about menstruation, but taught well?

Understanding what the menstrual cycle is, let’s not just talk about the period but about what the menstrual cycle is, and how you’re going to feel at different points. Getting girls to understand when it’s okay and when there might be something wrong. We hear stories of girls who have had extraordinarily painful, heavy periods and thinking that’s what periods are. So for girls to understand what to look out for and that it’s okay to go to doctors. More conversation so that girls – and boys – understand fully what a period is and what it isn’t.

LM: That might also help with things like endometriosis, PCOS, and even menopause...

Yeah. We do an exercise with cards with pictures of people and ask students to say which one of these could be having a period. It’s interesting to see which ones they pick. They tend to pick the girl picture, they don’t think about transgender people, older women, or younger girls having periods. They just pick the girl they see on the Bodyform advert.

LM: Things do appear to be changing for periods: England will fund sanitary products in schools and colleges from the next school year, the government "remains committed" to axing the 5% tax on women’s sanitary products, and menstruation education will be compulsory. What else needs to happen in order for girls and women to live happily, freely, and with proper knowledge about their bodies?

The things you’ve mentioned are amazing. But putting products into secondary schools is not enough is it? It’s great making an announcement and getting the kudos for that, but it’s not enough. The government need to commit to putting free products in primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, libraries and women’s centres. It’s always lip service, doing a little bit. But what’s the longer term commitment?

These things need to be embedded in society and workplaces. Products need to be purchased for washrooms just like toilet roll and hand wash. Only by doing all of that will that empower women to go actually, here’s a pack of tampons on full display just like everything else. That will help women come to terms with equality, and where they are in the world.


Period Crusaders across Europe

  • Bloody Good Period, period poverty charity and education resource (UK)
  • Fumble, sex education organisation and online resource (UK)
  • Dobila, volunteer-led menstruation education platform for girls (Bosnia)
  • Clue, period-tracking app and education resource (Germany)
  • Free Periods, campaign to end and educate on period poverty (UK)

Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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