Periods aren’t a Choice for Most Pupils in Wales: Period Education can’t be Optional Either

In Wales, we’re still in a form of Covid-19 lockdown but, gradually, people are starting to consider a return to normal life: work, socialising, going to school…But what about the one in five girls whose periods mean that going to school isn’t easy, Covid-19 or not? Or the half of all girls who say that their concentration in class is negatively impacted by heavy bleeding or pain?(1) 

Whilst we’ve all been rightly concerned about the impact lockdown is having on our children’s education, we need to extend that same level of concern to the thousands of girls across Wales whose education and long-term prospects are being impacted daily – by their periods.

Covid-19 is an unexpected and (currently) incurable virus, but the same cannot be said for menstrual health issues. For the most part, periods are a largely inevitable process in young women’s lives, and associated health issues CAN be remedied, if youngsters know that what they’re experiencing isn’t normal and to seek help.

And therein lies the problem – it’s a big ‘IF’ – an ‘if’ that Welsh Government has the power to resolve, IF they make menstrual well-being education compulsory on the new school curriculum for Wales from 2022.

Lest we forget, 52% of the population in Wales is female and about one third of those will be having periods. However, it’s still not mandatory to be taught about what to expect from them – and, by that, we mean more than the impersonal, ‘every 28 days, the ovary will release an egg’ or, ‘the uterus expels its lining every month in the form of a period’.

We did a cursory survey of our membership and they desperately wish they’d been taught that severe period pain isn’t normal, that it isn’t OK to pass out or throw up every month, that their ovaries do more than make eggs, that period blood isn’t the same as when you cut your finger, that the predicted ‘eggcup’ can be more like a tsunami, that associated mood-swings can sometimes be unbearable, and that, actually, sometimes, things can’t simply be dismissed as ‘normal’ or a ‘woman’s lot’ and need medical attention.

In England, menstrual education will be mandatory from September this year; in Wales, the Education Department insists that it’s more important to allow teachers, schools, local authorities flexibility so they can choose what to teach / what not to teach. We’d agree – professional educators’ subject-specific knowledge should absolutely be respected, and they should absolutely be allowed a certain degree of autonomy over what to include and how to deliver those subjects to which they’ve devoted their academic career.

The same can’t necessarily be said of Health and Wellbeing, an ‘Area of Learning and Experience’ which, from 2022, will be a core component of the school curriculum in Wales. It seems unlikely that any existing teacher will be qualified to cover the multiplicity of topics therein at the same level as they do their academic specialism. To expect them to do would seem to be a recipe for disaster or, at the very least, a recipe for variation, inequality, even harm.

Sure, it may well be possible to talk about sanitation – and, possibly, by extension, periods – in a geography lesson but, ‘possibly’ is the key word here. Will such a forum allow for in-depth, fact-based teaching on what constitutes a heavy period, or the symptoms of endometriosis, a condition affecting one in ten, or peri-menopause, the potential 10-year-run-up to full menopause? And would every teacher be prepared to cover these topics in such detail?

Can we really expect all maths teachers to use variation in menstrual cycles to teach mean, median, and mode?

Will this ‘flexible’ approach ensure that every pupil across Wales receives the same level of teaching on something that is going to affect almost every one of them directly or indirectly, some of them to the degree that they can no longer even make it to their maths lessons in the first place? We have our doubts…

FTWW is arguing for Health & Well-being to have justice done to it by having dedicated teaching time within the school timetable, delivered by specialists / those with lived experience, using evidence-based resources, and that those sessions be a core part of the curriculum for every school in Wales.

Why? Quite simply so that we don’t just continue to avoid the issue. Unless menstrual education is compulsory, chances are that embarrassment – on the part of both teachers and students alike – will continue to act as a barrier to discussion. By not forcing the issue, the very real risk is that we perpetuate age-old cultural taboos which stop pupils asking questions, learning about what’s normal – and what may warrant clinical investigation.

We need our parliamentarians to take all necessary measures to ensure that girls aren’t missing out on their education simply because periods aren’t seen as an issue worthy of full, frank, accurate, and mandated, discussion. To fail to do this is, quite simply, an equality and human rights issue, as Article 10 of the United Nations Convention Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) makes clear.

The UN expectation is that all parties – and that includes Welsh Government – should take all appropriate measures to reduce female student drop-out rates, such as access to specific educational information to help to ensure health and well-being, particularly as it pertains to issues associated with family planning (aka menstruation). (2)

Finally, we need also to remember that our future medical professionals are in those classrooms (assuming they’re not affected so badly by their periods that they can’t attend). By NOT teaching periods, we’re teaching them that periods don’t matter, and that has HUGE implications for the well-being of our future generations.