This week, Hey Girls launches My Period, a new education resource to help schools, youth groups and community workers teach about periods with confidence. My Period is the result of months of collaboration with a range of amazing partners to work out what is missing from period education, and how we can fill those gaps. We spoke to teachers, youth workers, young people, older people, community groups and vulnerable women. This is what we found out.
Period Education at School
Period education normally happens towards the end of primary school, quite often tacked on to the end of a ‘girl puberty’ session. There’s huge variation in how well this session is delivered – from a competent and empowering school nurse, through to an awkward PE teacher, through to the ‘Tampon Lady’ sent by a large company to give a thinly-veiled sales pitch. This is often a girls’ only lesson (with boys sent out to play football or equivalent).
Even if this one period education session is perfectly delivered and gender inclusive there’s still a problem that the session only happens once. For some pupils it will come too late (many people start their periods as young as 8, so learning about menstruation for the first time aged 11 is unhelpful). For others it will come quite early – by the time you start your period at 14, the chances are that you’ve forgotten much of what you were told.
Secondary Schools will typically cover menstruation in biology, but often assume that pupils were taught about puberty and periods at Primary School and otherwise leave the subject. This means that pupils miss out on valuable learning at exactly the time when they’re going through quite unsettling changes.
Period education is also often fairly basic – an overview of the biology followed by an introduction to pads and tampons and that’s it. People felt they had missed out some fairly important things – an understanding of what to expect; a chance to explore the practicalities of managing periods; an explanation of what is normal (and crucially what isn’t normal and when to go to the doctor); an understanding of how periods change across the life course; any mention of menopause; a recognition that products other than pads and tampons exist; and a recognition that trans* and non-binary people experience periods too.
Most important of all, is that by only talking about periods once or twice, schools unknowingly reinforce the idea that periods are shameful, and should be secret. By excluding male pupils from the discussion, schools socialise boys into thinking that periods are ‘gross’ and nothing to do with them, and teach the girls that they need to be discreet and keep their periods hidden. 48% of girls feel embarrassed by their periods, and we know that the onset of menstruation can be the moment when girls withdraw from lessons and sports. Schools are a microcosm of society, so it’s important that they are part of the movement to end menstrual stigma, and empower young people to feel comfortable about their bodies.
At Hey Girls, we know that schools want to do the best by their pupils. Teachers are overworked and PSHE / RSHP curricular are torn between competing demands. Schools are being asked to do more and more to support students to navigate society – everything from mental health and body image to parenting and social media, from STIs to knife crime. It’s not surprising that periods often get overlooked in the Secondary School.
This is why Hey Girls has created My Period – flexible resources that can be easily integrated into existing learning. My Period comes with a full set of lesson plans and activity ideas linked to curriculum benchmarks, all available for free. We recommend periods are taught at least annually for all pupils aged 8+. Lessons focus on the basic practicalities and biology in the early years, with older pupils examining how messaging in the media can shape stigma and taboo, exploring reusable period products, and learning about related medical conditions and when to seek help if something is wrong. My Period includes a range of activities from 10 minutes up to a full double lesson, to allow teachers to fit periods into what they already teach. We want schools to have the conversation about periods little and often, reinforcing the message that periods are normal and natural not shameful and hidden.
With schools in Scotland providing free period products for pupils, and England and Wales following suit, now is the time to ensure all pupils have access to high quality education about periods.
Period Education Beyond School
Research has shown that almost one in four women do not understand their menstrual cycle, a third of girls are not told about periods by their parents, and 10% receive no preparation before their first period. Consultations with partners has revealed that vulnerable young people (especially looked after children) are more likely to fall through the gaps.
Many people we spoke to said that they were unprepared for the way that periods change across the life course. In particular, how they are affected by contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and perimenopause. Community workers told us that vulnerable women (often living in period poverty) can experience particular distress in the changes in their menstrual cycle as a result of chaotic lifestyles.
Finally, a lack of awareness of what a normal period looks like results in the underdiagnosis or late diagnosis of various medical conditions, including endometriosis, which affects 1 in 10 women in the UK and has only recently been brought to public attention.
Positive, ongoing education about menstruation through community groups and women’s support networks. We have found that most women we worked with learned something new or unexpected in a My Period education session – no matter their age. There is particular need to support women experiencing peri-menopause.
Periods don’t stop when you leave school. That’s why we’re calling on community groups to ensure that the conversation doesn’t stop when school stops, and that learning and sharing about periods continues – supporting women throughout their lives, from menarche to menopause and beyond.
Hey Girls is a social enterprise, and empowering education is part of our social mission. Any revenue that we generate from any activity is reinvested into ending period poverty in the UK. Read more about our Buy One Give One model here: www.heygirls.co.uk