Outrage at Welsh Government’s Failure to Make Menstrual Education Mandatory

After months of collecting evidence, including that provided by FTWW, Endometriosis UK, and many other individuals, on Friday afternoon, Welsh Parliament’s Children, Young People and Education Committee (CYPE) published its report on the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill. You can read the report in full here.

Unacceptably, the CYPE Committee chose to back the Education Minister’s decision that schools should have the ‘flexibility’ to choose whether to cover Menstrual Wellbeing or not, instead of standing by a commitment to mandatory teaching on the subject given by Members of the Senedd earlier in the year. Part of a unanimously passed motion on endometriosis care, this commitment would have seen all pupils in Wales taught what’s ‘normal’ when it comes to periods and empowered to seek early intervention for related problems.

In choosing to back the Minister’s stance on this issue, the decision not to make menstrual wellbeing education mandatory is potentially both an infringement of young people’s rights to education and health-related information, and in direct opposition to the wishes of many in Wales, where 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to vote next year for the first time. It is also completely out of step with what is happening in the rest of the UK.

This year has seen England making menstrual wellbeing education mandatory in its schools and Scottish Government announcing that period products are to be free of cost to all who need them. Meanwhile, the UK Government released a report showing that girls and women in Wales have the worst diagnostic delay for menstrual health conditions out of all 4 UK nations. Welsh Parliament’s recommendation that menstrual education not be mandatory but merely ‘optional’ seems bizarre in this context, especially as for 52% of the population, periods are not a choice.

As campaigners, as women – many of us mothers ourselves – will know, the notion that ‘flexibility’ in the classroom is sufficient to ensure discussion of a subject as conventionally taboo as periods does not reflect reality. The simple fact is that many teachers and pupils will avoid any such discussion unless our government makes it a requirement, and schools are supported to deliver evidence-based information on the topic.

Both teachers and pupils alike have told us that they feel too embarrassed to discuss menstruation and related issues openly, resulting in many of them ‘suffering in silence’ throughout their lives. Period pain and heavy bleeding is normalised to the extent that young women feel awkward asking if what they’re experiencing is OK, and yet, paradoxically, the topic is as far as it’s possible to be from ‘normal’, everyday conversation. One in five girls will miss lessons due to their periods – but are too ashamed to tell their schools the real reason for their absence.

Myths around menstruation and associated health issues abound. In fact, embarrassment, uncertainty, and ignorance are amongst the key reasons for shocking diagnostic delays and lack of women’s health services in Wales.

Endometriosis, a gynaecological condition affecting one in ten young women (about the same as diabetes or asthma) in which symptoms often commence around the same time as periods begin (typically age 12-13) takes over 9 years to diagnose in Wales. Meanwhile, menopause – which will affect 52% of the population at some point – still sees women in the region often unable to access specialist help and HRT, or suffering mistreatment in the workplace, largely as a result of inadequate training or awareness. Despite the huge numbers affected, neither is considered worthy of additional funding for provision in general practice, unlike other ‘enhanced services’ such as COPD or diabetes, for example.

In its report, the Committee stated that to make the Menstrual Education mandatory would ‘risk overcrowding the curriculum’ – a curriculum which will go unappreciated by the one in five young women missing hundreds of hours of lessons throughout their educational careers because of their periods, or the one in two who describe their concentration to be negatively impacted by menstrual pain and / or bleeding.

Notwithstanding ‘concerns about overcrowding (the curriculum)’, the Committee still felt that there was sufficient space within it to recommend that mental health and wellbeing be mandatory – something with which we wholeheartedly agree. However, what is completely missing from this recommendation is the acknowledgement that for many young women, their mental health is inextricably tied to their menstrual cycle.

By this, we are not just referring to the one in twenty affected by PMDD (Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder), a very severe form of the more well-known PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) but also the everyday issues of bleeding through one’s school uniform, worrying about asking to go to the toilet during class – again – or being ridiculed for having extra-absorbent tampons in one’s bag. These alone can be enough to cause unbearable anxiety and stress. The disconnect is evidence – if any more were needed – of the need for mandatory education on menstrual wellbeing in schools, and as a matter of urgency.

Quite rightly, mental health has, in recent times, been the subject of many and varied public campaigns, mostly underpinned by the message that ‘talking saves lives’. Mental health issues now feature regularly in mainstream media, whether in documentaries or TV soaps.

Thanks to prominent and effective messaging, most are conscious that one in four of us will be affected by a mental health issue at some point in our lives, so improving awareness and enabling young people to identify problems and build resilience is paramount. Why then does the same argument apparently not extend to the one in two pupils having periods?

Carwyn Jones at Llandudno Labour Conference 2018 committing to give Wales a Feminist Goverment.

How many public health campaigns have we seen on menstrual health recently? When was the last time we saw a young woman in ‘Coronation Street’ stand up from her lunch in ‘Roy’s Rolls’ with blood-soaked jeans? When was there ever a serious discussion aimed at breaking down the misconceptions and stigma surrounding menstruation in the UK on ‘Panorama’? The answer is never. And this sorry state of affairs is likely to continue whilst the Welsh Government, having committed to becoming a feminist Government[i] back in 2018, considers period health a topic not requiring of mandatory inclusion in its new curriculum.

There is still scope for our elected representatives to ensure that Menstrual Wellbeing features on the Health & Wellbeing Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE) ‘What Matters Statement’. This would go some way to influencing schools’ decision-making in terms of their curriculum’s content.

The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill as it stands, and the Committee’s report, will be debated in the Senedd on the 15th of this month (December 2020). The wellbeing of our future generations depends on Members using this opportunity to speak up for women and their health – that is what matters.

***To make sure your elected Member of the Senedd (MS) speaks up in defence of mandatory menstrual wellbeing education, including having it listed on the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ AoLE ‘What Matters Statement’, please contact them before December 15th, asking that they make this request during the Senedd debate on the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill. You can find your MS here and a template letter to send here: ***

[i] https://www.welshlabour.wales/first-minister-carwyn-jones-am-speech-to-welsh-labour-conference-2018/