The conversation isn’t over, period

While federal and state governments are, albeit slowly, starting to recognise the need for greater access to sanitary products, the period conversation is far from over. In some cases, it has hardly begun, writes Journalist Sara El Sayed.

It took campaigners 18 years to break down the tax barrier on sanitary products – forcing the Federal Government to recognise that pads and tampons are not luxury items.

Only in late 2018 did some state governments even begin to consider offering free sanitary products in schools.

But still, in many households and schools, discussions of periods are tabooed – with young women finding themselves learning as they go and dismissing pain. In some cases, extreme discomfort results in girls skipping school.

With student absences due to period pain and mismanagement showing no signs of slowing down, there is a real need to address the problem.

No gain, just pain

Some studies have found that up to 90% of young women experience period pain, with only 34% of women consulting a health care provider about their pain.

In Australia, one in 10 women suffer from debilitating pain caused by a medical condition called endometriosis. Endometriosis Australia suggests that women with endometriosis suffer with pain for four years before making any form of report to a healthcare professional. It can then take three to nine years before they are officially diagnosed.

Women see living with pain as normal, and delays in reporting and diagnosing legitimate conditions reinforce this notion.

Equipping young people with menstrual health knowledge, confidence to ask questions, and sources to get the right answers, is the key to breaking taboos and improving health.

It is massively important that boys are educated – not only for the women in their lives – but to gain understanding that will combat outdated attitudes that cause girls to be shamed for having their periods.

Time to talk menstrual health

Period Talk is an initiative that aims to break down the barriers, and start the conversations, for the sake of young girls and their health.

Developed by filmmaker Tasha Lawton in partnership with Share the Dignity, Period Talk puts these conversations centre stage in the education space, with a video series aimed at young people, delivered by young people.

Lawton said Period Talk covers more than just ‘the mechanics’ of periods.

“This program covers issues that students may not have learnt about in a school environment before: the emotional side of periods, the social side of periods, and common misconceptions.

“The fact that so many girls are missing school due to period pain shows that they do not understand how to manage it.

“Kids need to know more about the menstrual cycle – how in each week of the cycle something different happens, and what that means, and how that can affect them.

“They need to know more about Toxic Shock Syndrome, the chemicals present on the sanitary products, and what is normal when it comes to PMS,” Lawton said.

The program also covers different cultural practices and expectations when it comes to period management.

“Adults and young people alike in Australia generally have no idea about how people deal with periods in other countries and cultures.

“It is valuable for them to understand the breadth of knowledge, and conversations that are being had about periods and period management.”

While Period Talk provides an extensive resource for young women to get to know their bodies better, it also provides young men with the information they need to understand the menstrual cycle.

“It is massively important that boys are educated – not only for the women in their lives – but to gain understanding that will combat outdated attitudes that cause girls to be shamed for having their periods.

“These attitudes contribute to the tabooed nature of the conversation.

“Boys and men must contribute to normalising the conversation.”

Privilege plays a part

Rochelle Courtenay, founder and managing director of charity Share the Dignity, said she hopes Period Talk can dispel the shame and stigma surrounding menstruation.

“The only way to alleviate that stigma is through education,” Courtenay said.

Share the Dignity’s focus is to support homeless women and victims of domestic violence through donations of necessities such as pads, tampons and personal hygiene products – with a goal of ending period poverty.

When partnering with Lawton to develop Period Talk, both agreed that period poverty was an issue that needed to be addressed.

Courtenay said some students are currently experiencing period poverty.

“I recently heard the story of a young girl in the foster system who was going to school, but was homeless.

“She was sleeping on the school oval, and had no access to sanitary items or clean underwear.

“It is concerning to think that these circumstances can occur in this day and age.

“Who is there to educate her about menstruation and how to manage?

“If one’s parents were never educated about menstrual health, or if parents are not in the picture, girls are often left on their own.

“It is integral that educating girls and boys in schools about menstruation is made a priority – the same way fundamental subjects such as English and Maths are taught.”

Courtenay said it was also important for young people who may not have experienced period poverty to be aware of these issues.

“It’s about talking about periods and breaking the taboo – so they know where to go and what to do if they or people they know need support.”

First Nations women face greater challenges

A 2016 study conducted by the University of Queensland found that women living in remote Indigenous communities faced greater challenges when managing menstrual hygiene.

A lack of facilities that others may take for granted – such as privacy in bathrooms, lockable doors, functioning bathrooms, running water and soap, rubbish bins and accessible products – is impacting on young women’s attendance at school and community activities.

Coupled with menstrual health being a low health education priority in remote communities, and the cost of buying sanitary products, women in these areas are expected to manage with little to nothing to support them.

Lawton and Courtenay noted that the next step for Period Talk was to address the distinct needs of Indigenous women.

“It is important to us to also create an equally supportive resource for Indigenous women in remote communities,” Courtenay said.

“This is a main priority on our agenda for 2019.”

To learn more about Period Talk, and to download the program, visit Programs are available for parents and schools.