Along with providing an academic education, the school environment is a place where young people can grow into themselves. Whether they are learning how to interact with new people, or learning about their own bodies and the changes they are going through, the school environment should remain a safe space for teenagers to develop and change.
However, the reality for many teenagers when it comes to menstruating at school is one of anxiety and confusion. It is not uncommon for young people to start their first period while on school grounds, and this can be a traumatic experience if not handled properly. It is important that they are given the education, support and facilities they need in order to feel comfortable with their bodies, rather than feel the pressure to hide their experiences from their teachers and their peers.
Knowledge is Power
More often than not, the menstrual stigmas that still affect so many women in a personal and professional capacity all start at school. The cliches of menstruating girls choosing not to take part in sports activities such as swimming – or in some cases, choosing not to come to school at all for fear they might bleed through their clothes – are still felt today, and can only be changed through education and open communication.
School assemblies are a great way to get important information across to a large group of people. However, this does not always encourage open discussion, as some young people may still feel embarrassed to ask important questions in front of so many people, or be glib about the subject matter. By discussing these topics in smaller groups, discussion can be much more effective, and teachers are able to encourage students to come forward if they have any concerns or worries about what their bodies are going through.
Of course, it is not just those who menstruate that are in need of comprehensive menstrual education. In fact, there has been a recent surge of awareness in the need to include boys in conversations surrounding menstruation, to help break down the barriers that still exist between men and women on these issues.
A recent study found that an overwhelming 90% of school girls admitted they were scared to come to school while menstruating, partly due to the fear of being teased by boys in their class. When the same report shows that 72% of boys had never had a single lesson concerning menstruation, it is hardly surprising that this lack of awareness can result in this sort of bullying.
Though these issues are still sensitive topics for many people, especially teenagers who may still feel awkward about discussing such things, it is possible to encourage a positive environment in which young people can be open and relate to one another, rather than feel shame and secrecy.
The Fight Against Period Poverty
Though menstrual stigmas keep many students at home during their periods for fear of embarrassment, for others, a lack of access to menstrual products has kept over 130,000 children out of school, with 1 in 10 girls unable to afford them.
While charities can shoulder some of the burden, providing free sanitary products to all students is something that can only be achieved through legislation. Luckily for young people in the UK, this is an issue that has seen vast improvement, with Scotland in particular working hard to end period poverty.
However, many teachers may not even be aware of the fact that their students are unable to afford sanitary products, making open lines of communication even more important. Students should feel at ease to approach their teachers if they are struggling to afford sanitary products, or even if they have forgotten to bring their own from home and are anxious about bleeding through their clothes.
While it shouldn’t be a teacher’s responsibility to provide sanitary products for their students on a regular basis, there are many things that they can do to ensure their students feel safe and supported. Even keeping a spare set of clothes in the classroom in case of emergencies can go a long way towards sending the message that periods are a natural occurrence, and should not be a source of embarrassment.
Improving School Bathrooms
Access to menstrual products isn’t the be all and end all, however. Even if every student has access to the sanitary products they need, this does not necessarily reduce unwanted stress or make menstruating at school any easier – particularly if the bathroom facilities are unpleasant.
Though some school bathrooms are, no doubt, newer and nicer than others, this is not the case for the majority of students. In fact, surveys have shown that some students even reduce their food and liquid intake throughout the day in order to avoid using the facilities on school grounds, with complaints ranging from lack of cleanliness to bad smell and even safety concerns. Any one of these factors can deter even the most unfazed students from using the school facilities to change their sanitary products, which can be both unpleasant and unhygienic.
Though many schools face restrictions when altering their bathroom facilities – be it for spacial or budgetary reasons – there are small changes that can make them a more welcoming environment for students. Having some sort of background music or noise playing, for example, can provide a little privacy for some students. Sanitary products are notoriously noisy, and this may ease the mind of shier students who may be concerned about being overheard.
Even keeping on top of cleaning bathrooms and ensuring that hand towels, toilet paper and soap are topped up can encourage more students to use the facilities available to them, rather than waiting until they get home from school.
Sanitary Waste Disposal
For menstruating students, the most important facilities in any school bathroom are sanitary bins. Sanitary waste disposal facilities are vital for any public place, but especially in a school where students are spending a significant portion of their day. In fact, sanitary bins are not only vital in ensuring good hygiene; they are also a legal requirement.
In order to avoid any unpleasant or embarrassing situations for students, there should be enough disposal facilities for every cubicle. When it comes to sanitary waste disposal, it is also important to take into consideration that, while waste bins are usually limited to girls’ bathrooms, it is very possible that trans students using the boys’ facilities may still need access to sanitary waste disposal. By ensuring that boys’ bathrooms also have some access to these facilities, these students can come to school without the stress of having to ask a teacher for assistance.
Menstruation is not always an easy topic for schools and educators to tackle, especially when it is still considered taboo by so many. However, schools and teachers have the opportunity to help normalise menstruation amongst both girls and boys, and create a more open environment that will colour their experiences long after they leave school.
By providing adequate education and clean and equipped facilities, being empathetic and readily available to answer questions and provide support, schools can make a great deal of difference to students who may feel embarrassed or scared by their experiences.