As our country’s highest institutions grapple with sexual and gender inequality, our media landscape and public are united in their demand for ‘better education of our boys’ early on.
There are myriad long-standing social barriers relating to gender equality with poor sexual education now at the front line.
In my latest report ‘Menstruation Matters’ I make periods my focal point, as menstruation is often one of the earliest experiences of systemic gender inequality faced by many children and young people.
Last month South Australia welcomed an announcement that the state government would provide funding towards free sanitary products in schools.
However, there are critical issues surrounding menstruation that are not limited to access but are arguably equally as pressing — namely stigma and taboo.
It is patently clear that to improve menstrual wellbeing across our community we must acknowledge menstruation as a systemic gender equity and equal opportunity issue, which needs a comprehensive systemic policy response.
My latest report contains recommendations that came from an analysis of more than 3,267 responses from 2,985 children and young people between the ages of 7 and 22 who responded to two period surveys conducted in 2020. They include the need to develop a Menstrual Wellbeing Policy as a core pillar of South Australia’s Health in All Policy (HiAP) framework; ensure all children across primary and high school receive menstruation education that extends beyond the biological cycle; formally recognise the barriers menstruation has on school attendance; and develop best practice resources to support schools to use ‘review and change where required procedures’ in relation to bathroom access, sanitary bin supply and uniform policy.
As one of the first reports to explore the issue in-depth Menstruation Matters makes the argument that because of the wide-ranging impact periods have on children and young people, the onus is on all sectors of society — government, education, business, health, and community — to recognise menstrual wellbeing and dignity as a systemic issue fundamental to children’s rights, central to economic productivity, and crucial to achieving gender equity.
One of the key findings was that children and young people believe all young people, regardless of gender identity, should receive comprehensive menstruation education. Most young people expressed hope that teaching everyone about menstruation, particularly boys and young men, would normalise menstruation, open up important conversations and increase maturity, empathy, kindness and gender equality overall.
Comprehensive menstruation education would also help to address the embarrassment and fear of being bullied or teased about menstruation, removing the barriers to open discussion that would dignify rather than shame those who menstruate. Being taught to hide rather than manage menstruation from an early age was one of the key frustrations communicated.
The below quotes highlight some of the gender stigma issues I’ve heard from young people:
‘Bullying is huge, especially in the pre-teen age group. Boys would say things like ‘are you on your period — you’re being a bitch’ and other embarrassing and derogatory remarks towards girls and their periods. For this reason I felt incredibly uncomfortable around my period when I did and even when I did not have it.’
‘So many boys grow up to have no understanding of periods, which can make them unsympathetic in the workforce and in relationships, this negatively impacts the people around them who have periods.’
‘Lots of boys on social media apps will talk about them (periods) in a nasty way, which makes me uncomfortable and kinda self-conscious in a way, periods, etc. should be out on social medias more, making sure people know that it’s okay and that it’s not weird.’
While young people describe the general impacts of period pain on their wellbeing, many mention the specific impacts of having their menstrual pain dismissed as ‘trivial’. Not being taken seriously by adults as well as peers is one of the key reasons why young people feel the need to keep periods secretive and discreet and ‘just get on with it’.
As one young person put it, ‘there needs to be more awareness of menstruation and surrounding issues and stigma to demystify these problems and the psychological tolls this may have on people’.
‘Don’t shy away from saying it out loud. There were times in my school experience where teachers (male and female) would be awkward when discussing periods and use slang terms such as ‘crimson wave’ and ‘Mother Nature being nasty’. This caused confusion and discomfort for a lot of students seeking help.’
It’s time to address menstrual wellbeing and current failings. We can no longer shrug off the impact of menstruation as an individual challenge or something that needs to be dealt with within the family. Boys need to be present and actively engaged in menstruation education that starts in primary school and extends into high school. Doing so may impact positively on other areas of sexual education including issues of respect and consent and society’s behavioural expectations of boys and young men.
Only once we acknowledge menstruation as a systemic gender equity and equal opportunity issue and pivot our sexual education model in recognition of this, can we begin to make positive change.