A new study has revealed theimpact menstrual disorders and period pain is having on the education of young women, as journalist Jessica Willis writes.
Menstrual disorders are highly prevalent in adolescents and young women.
Period pain affects about 75 percent of women under 25 worldwide, a figure that increases to 90 percent for young women in Australia.
Researchers from Western Sydney University, the University of South Australia and Middlebury College in the United States surveyed 4,202 young Australian women aged between 13-25 years old on their menstrual pain and academic achievement.
90% suffered period pain
Over 90 percent of participants reported period pain, with more than half reporting pain with every menstrual cycle in the past three months before the survey.
While over a third said they had recently missed at least one class of school or university in the past three menstrual cycles due to period pain, similar numbers missed a whole day of school or university.
This is concerning given the established link between absenteeism and academic achievement – when absenteeism increases, academic achievement decreases – as well as other adverse consequences such as increased social isolation and disengagement from peers and community.
Presenteeism was also found to be a major issue with participants reporting issues with concentration during classes, poorer performance during classes as well as assessments or tests due to period pain.
Dr Mike Armour at Western Sydney University’s NICM Health Research Institute led the study, calling it a wake up call for the need to remove stigma around periods and for more flexibility and support to be provided to students and those teaching them.
“Education takes a hit when students miss school, so it’s concerning that over a third of young women reported missing a whole day of school or university in the previous three months,” Armour said.
Period pain can be severe
Dr Jane Chalmers, co-author of the study and senior lecturer at the University of South Australia, said the impact of menstrual pain can be severe.
“Period pain can significantly affect young women’s mood, energy level and consequently their work or school performance,” Dr Chalmers said.
“This significant level of impact is higher than previous studies have shown and it suggests that younger women are not getting sufficient relief from their period pain.”
An overwhelming majority of the women surveyed were also worried about how to hide their period, and the risk of bleeding through their clothes.
Over half also reported pelvic pain when not having their period, a concern as this can be a sign of persistent pelvic pain caused by conditions such as endometriosis which is not uncommon in adolescents and young women (it can range from early to advanced stage even at a young age).
Open communication between students and teachers would help
Professor Kathryn Holmes, another co-author from the University of Western Sydney, said the study shows open communication between students and teaching staff would help, but many young women are unwilling to raise issues with their teachers.
Only 11 percent of young women at school said they would talk to a teacher about their period-related problems.
About a third said they would speak to a teacher but only if the teacher was a woman.
“This reluctance stems from feelings of embarrassment or perceptions that teachers would not respond in a caring manner if symptoms were reported,” Professor Holmes said.
According to the study, reasons teachers may be reluctant or avoid teaching on sexual health and relationships in schools varies from an overcrowded curriculum and little time to lacking confidence or a fear of overstepping the boundaries of ‘parental content’.
Dr Armour said these misgivings are also partly due to a wider cultural stigma around periods.
However, he also pointed to previous studies showing that more teacher education is needed in this area.
“There is an urgent need for more effective teacher education on menstrual health,” he said.
“This should be for all staff involved in teaching young women, not just those teaching health and physical education.”
Health literacy critical regarding period pain
The combination of low health literacy and the normalisation of menstrual pain may result in a serious risk of chronic health conditions being underdiagnosed and/or undertreated.
Although it is taught in the Australian curriculum, most young women frame period pain as part-and-parcel of “becoming a woman”.
It is time to recognise this as a potential health problem and something that women do not need to ‘put up with’.
Worryingly, most young women manage their period pain primarily with over-the-counter pain medications rather than seeking medical advice, according to findings from the same survey.
This means they are often under-dosing or choosing less effective medications such as paracetamol and not getting optimal pain relief.
A variety of factors could explain this, including cultural/ societal shame or stigma around discussing periods, a lack of health literacy and education on periods, feeling or experiences of being dismissed by medical professionals or the pain occurring so long it becomes ‘normal’.
“Improved menstrual education is a priority for young people and their parents, who often feel they do not have access to suitable information on menstruation,” Dr Armour said.
“For meaningful sexual health education for all, it is critical that menstruation and period pain stops being a ‘female-only’ issue and includes all genders, as well as parents, caregivers and our school communities.”
Workers’ rights and reproductive health
Period pain and other menstrual symptoms do not just affect young women in schools.
Women in workplaces can also suffer similarly.
Our union has created a model clause regarding paid reproductive leave for use in collective bargaining to help alleviate workplace pressures on all workers, particularly those who suffer from chronic or severe reproductive health conditions.
The model clause would provide 10 days of paid leave per year (non-cumulative) for employees suffering from menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause, menopause, poly-cystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis, male or female infertility, In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and other forms of assisted reproductive health services, vasectomy and hysterectomy.
To find out more about the model clause please contact our union.
Armour, M., Curry, C. and MacMillan, F., 2019. Period pain is impacting women at school, uni and work. Let’s be open about it. The Conversation, [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2021].
Armour, M., Ferfolja, T., Curry, C., Hyman, M., Parry, K., Chalmers, K., Smith, C., MacMillan, F. and Holmes, K., 2020. The Prevalence and Educational Impact of Pelvic and Menstrual Pain in Australia: A National Online Survey of 4202 Young Women Aged 13-25 Years. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 33(5), pp.511-518.
Armour, M., Hyman, M., Al-Dabbas, M., Parry, K., Ferfolja, T., Curry, C., MacMillan, F., Smith, C. and Holmes, K., 2021. Menstrual Health Literacy and Management Strategies in Young Women in Australia: A National Online Survey of Young Women Aged 13-25 Years. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 34(2), pp.135-143.