Schools must change the way they teach and talk about periods if they are to tackle the stigma that contributes to two in three girls missing lessons, a charity leading a government taskforce has said.
Plan International UK will work with Penny Mordaunt, the women and equalities minister, and Procter and Gamble over the next 18 months to find ways to tackle the root causes of period poverty in the UK. The taskforce will examine the role of education, the cost of sanitary products and the shame that can surround periods.
There needs to be a strong message in education and understanding how bodies work
The announcement comes after a survey found that two thirds of girls have missed a part day or full day of school because of their period.
Schools remain in the dark about exactly when plans to fund free sanitary products in all primary and secondary schools will be rolled out.
During a House of Lords debate last week, Baroness Williams, a Home Office minister, said the national rollout would take place in early 2020 at the “earliest” – much later than the September start date pledged by chancellor Philip Hammond last year.
Lucy Russell, Plan’s head of UK girls’ rights, told Schools Week that there were a number of actions that schools could take to tackle the stigma around periods.
Incorporating boys into the discussion, starting in primary school, about menstruation and the reproductive cycle would make young people aware of periods and puberty before it begins, she said.
“At the moment we’re getting feedback that boys are being told to go outside while the girls stay and listen (in classes about menstruation),” Russell said.
“This really reinforces the message that periods are something to be hidden and tucked away. There needs to be a strong message in education and understanding how bodies work.”
Research carried out by Plan found that commonly-cited reasons given by girls for period-related absence included concerns about leaking, anxiety about their period and embarrassment. Forty per cent of those who missed school reported struggling to catch up on work.
The study, based on a survey of 1,000 girls and women aged 14 to 21 years old, also revealed that one in five are teased or bullied about their periods.
Schools must ‘eliminate barriers’
Russell said that Plan’s research showed pupils don’t just want the biology of periods explained, but the wider health and social aspects as well, such as how moods can be affected, pain relief and “what is normal and what’s not”.
She also called for a more integrated and creative approach in how periods are discussed, such as using literature, songs and plays, thereby spanning across different subjects.
In addition to resources and access to facilities, teachers should be fully trained and equipped to talk about periods, Russell said.
She cited examples of teachers requiring “extensive explanations” from young people when they asked for a bathroom break during lessons as a poor way of tackling stigma.
Schools should also “eliminate any barriers” to accessing products, thereby reducing the stigma around periods, Russell added.
Such barriers can include forcing pupils to sign out products and only having sanitary pads in one location – like a nurse’s room.
“We completely understand that schools have to make their own judgement as environments vary, but just as a young person never needs to ask for toilet paper, an ideal situation would be they wouldn’t need to ask for sanitary products,” Russell said.