No more shame: Period positivity makes a difference

St Paul’s teacher Nicole Burns with former students Alex Holliday, Jess Robinson, Charlotte Ferry, Maddie Ferry

St Paul’s teachers Nicole Burns and Sarah Gardiner

One school’s progressive move could be a model for many more around the country, writes Lucy Meyer.

What started as a classroom discussion led to school-wide changes before spreading throughout a diocese.

It began in early 2022, when a news item sparked passionate responses from a Community and Family Studies (CAFS) class at St Paul’s Catholic College Booragul in regional NSW.

The state government had just announced it would provide free pads and tampons for students at all government schools. “Getting your period should not be a barrier to education,” said the state’s then-Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell.

The Year 12 class at St Paul’s, a co-ed school, couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t also have access to free period products. Weren’t pads and tampons a necessity?

Their teacher, IEU member Nicole Burns, encouraged them to find out more. The students left the class fired up and determined to make a change.

Charlotte Ferry was in that class. Her sister Maddie remembers how excited Charlotte was when she came home from school that day. “We really think we can make it go somewhere,” Charlotte told her sister.

Nicole Burns receives the 2023 Emmaus Award for Excellence in SecondaryTeaching from Steve Lemos of the Catholic Schools Office, Maitland-Newcastle.

Kicking off the campaign

The students wrote to their local members, the Minister for Women, and the Minister for Education. “The advice was resounding: ‘you’re not going to get them for free’,” Burns remembers.

Assumptions were made that students at non-government schools were privileged enough not to need free period products, Burns says. “And that’s certainly not the case at this school.”

Undeterred and armed with research, the students met with the director of the Catholic Schools Office to advocate for period products to be freely available in school bathrooms. The director was supportive. A steering committee was formed “and it all went from there”, Burns says.

The project involved countless meetings, research and consultation, financing, logistics, surveying students and incorporating findings.

Students were involved at every step. They faced some hurdles, says one of the students who kickstarted the idea, Alex Holliday. “It took a while to get a few people on board, but you just hassle them down,” Holliday says. The students were assisted by Dr Michelle O’Shea, an academic from the University of Western Sydney.

“I really do hope that other schools will see us and think, ‘oh, we can do that too’.”

Strong launch spurs wider change

Together with the rest of the steering committee, the students created Period Positivity, an initiative focused on access, equity, and dignity. Free pads and tampons would be provided in dispensers in school bathrooms, but the program would extend beyond products, with an education campaign plus policies to promote reproductive health and gender equity.

They launched a pilot program at St Paul’s in Term 4, 2022. It was so successful that Period Positivity was rolled out to the entire Maitland-Newcastle diocese in Term 3, 2023.

By the time Period Positivity was unveiled at St Paul’s, the class who started it all was sitting their HSC exams. They passed the baton to an incoming class, who matched their passion for the project.

Shame, stigma and skipping school

Maddie Ferry was in the new cohort. The day the dispensers were installed, she took a photo and sent it to her sister Charlotte, who had helped make it happen.

“I shed a tear,” Charlotte says. “Because it’s so much bigger than just having tampons.” There are so many more girls, women, non-binary and trans students “who can come to school now and feel safe”, she says. “Honestly, if I talk about it too much, I get emotional.”

According to research from the University of Western Sydney, a lack of support around menstruation means many Australian girls are disadvantaged in educational and extracurricular activities. A 2020 national survey revealed that close to half of all menstruating students regularly stay home from school due to their period.

“The thing that makes me feel upset about students not coming to school because they don’t have access to those products is because it’s such a simple solution,” says Sarah Gardiner, a teacher at St Paul’s and a member of the IEU Executive.

A St Paul’s survey revealed a correlation between absenteeism and a lack of access to products, Holliday says. Some experience “period poverty” – the struggle to afford sanitary goods. But accessibility is about more than cost.

St Paul’s found that many students felt uncomfortable going to the office to request a sanitary item. “You’d whisper it”, says Maddie, “you wouldn’t want anyone to hear you asking for it”. When she was a student, Burns says, “there was a lot of secrecy”. She remembers her peers hiding pads up their sleeves.

Periods have long been a source of shame, but Period Positivity is attempting to destigmatise menstruation. Access to pads and tampons should be as basic as toilet paper and hand soap, Burns says.

The importance of education

Period Positivity “did teach people that it’s not something to be ashamed of”, says Jess Robinson, a member of the 2023 class that led the initiative.

A key focus of Period Positivity is removing the taboo of menstruating. To do that, students need to be taught about the realities of periods, says Robinson, who believes the curriculum isn’t filling the gap.

“We don’t get educated, we get taught,” she says. Girls are told the basics: their uterine wall will shed once a month. But what is really needed is in-depth education about the whole experience, “symptoms, pain, cramps” she says, banging her fist on the table to emphasise each point.

A dispenser with free period products in a bathroom at St Paul’s

A model of change

Period Positivity is part of a broader societal shift towards menstrual equity: the right to fair and equal access to sanitary goods, education on reproductive health, and quality care.

In 2019, Australia repealed the “tampon tax” that taxed products as luxury items. In the last few years, every state and territory has announced free pads and tampons in public schools, but not many independent and Catholic schools have followed suit.

Could St Paul’s be a model for other non-government schools around the country? “Absolutely, I don’t see why not,” says Burns. The Period Positivity team has shown “that it works and that it’s a need”.

Gardiner also believes her school’s success can be copied. “I really do hope that other schools will see us and think, ‘oh, we can do that too’.”

Burns believes the key to replicating the success of St Pauls’ is ensuring students steer the process. You need a team, she says. “I used to call them my ‘period patrol’.” If she were doing it again, Burns would also include more boys.

Another key factor is the level of preparedness. The Period Positivity team knew a student or two might make jokes or pull pranks, but they were ready. They included an awareness campaign, and had students talk to their peers. As a result, they experienced very little antisocial behaviour.

Having a teacher like Nicole Burns driving the process was critical. Her students say that while she’ll never take credit for the project, it wouldn’t exist without her. In May 2023, Burns won the Emmaus Award for Excellence in Secondary Teaching for her work on Period Positivity.

She sees her students as “changemakers” who made a difference on an issue of dignity and equity. “Why wouldn’t I support something like this?” she asks.