Schools are moving in the right direction in tackling stigma around mentruation, but how can we ensure results are sustained? Kate Bowen-Viner looks at the research
Last year, I spent time in a secondary school talking to girls about how period stigma can be compounded, and mitigated, by their school environment. Girls shared their frustrations about period taboo: how it was often used to ridicule and make them feel embarrassed. Shame about periods led to many adapting their behaviour or wanting to skip school.
Thankfully, the education sector is becoming more period friendly. Schools now have access to free menstruation products to tackle period poverty, and updated RSE will be compulsory from September. But how to build on this momentum to dismantle the stigma surrounding periods is unclear, and getting it right is a matter of social justice.
Whilst there are few studies on menstruation in school, research shows us that menstruation stigma is widespread in the UK and the rest of the world. The way many people talk about periods suggests that they are something to be ashamed of and kept secret. The media’s portrayal of menstruation often feeds into this narrative too. For instance, until four years ago all adverts for menstrual products showed pale blue liquid, rather than red blood.
Existing research shows how problematic menstruation stigma can be for young people. Studies show that many girls in England and other parts of the world feel so ashamed by their periods that they miss out on school and sport. Girls’ worries about keeping their menstrual status private also affects their attendance at school.
The form of period stigma varies massively across cultures
Menstruation stigma also affects boys’ behaviour. Many boys do not receive high-quality education on periods and in some cases are excluded from lessons about menstruation. Society also encourages them to see menstruation as a mysterious and embarrassing “women’s problem”. Boys can therefore be reluctant to ask questions about periods. This can culminate in a situation where boys at best feel like they do not understand girls and at worst belittle girls with sexist comments.
The section on menstruation in the new RSE guidance states that it “should ensure male and female pupils are prepared for changes they and their peers will experience,” but there is no specific guidance on how schools should do this. The small but growing research base on the problematic nature of menstruation stigma is helpful, but we need more studies that focus on how schools can tackle it.
Studies are scarce, often methodologically flawed and rarely transferable to schools in the UK. A few evaluations, including quasi-experimental studies in international contexts, have assessed the impact of various interventions on girls’ embarrassment and shame. However, these approaches may not have the same power in the UK. The form of period stigma varies massively across cultures.
Finally, to get a fuller understanding of the issues young people face and workable solutions, new studies to fill this gap should include them in their design and implementation. As the N8 Research Partnership has highlighted, such an approach allows young people to be more open about their experiences, ensures methods are relevant to them, and gives rise to recommendations that bear weight in the real world. Period stigma exists in different social settings, using context-specific language. Youth-led research is therefore especially valuable for exploring locally relevant solutions.
The menstrual movement is at a unique juncture. Activists have put period poverty and menstruation stigma in the spotlight and many people are becoming more passionate about periods. It is impossible to know how long this will last. Researchers, policymakers and leaders across the education system must strike while the iron is hot and invest in co-produced research to identify practical and relevant ways for schools to dismantle period stigma. If we do not, the opportunity presented by compulsory RSE could be lost and we risk period stigma being characterised as a passing fad. We already know that the taboo around periods is a widespread problem for school pupils. Now, we need to collaborate with young people to explore and promote solutions.