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The modern scandal of menstrual education in our schools

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Sex education became compulsory in 2017 Sex education became compulsory in 2017

In England sex education became compulsory in 2017. All children from the age of four are taught about safe and healthy relationships and children at an appropriate age are also taught about sex, parents continue to have the right to withdraw their children from these classes. The curriculum will also be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer inclusive.

There are changes to be made to the school curriculum and one of the changes will require schools to inform students about menstrual health conditions such as menstruation and endometriosis.

Teaching about menstrual health in schools to boys and girls is a step towards improving the health and wellbeing of girls and women. It will also provide girls with a vocabulary that can help them explain and articulate their needs and understand their own bodies from a biopsychosocial perspective. Education has the real potential to play a key role in teaching young women how to talk about when their bodies are not functioning well.

Plan International UK1 reports of a culture of stigma and silence that have turned periods into a hidden public health issue – putting the physical, sexual and mental health of girls at risk. Each month in the UK, there are girls who face period poverty: two fifths (40%) have had to use toilet roll because they cannot afford proper sanitary products. One in seven girls (14%) lack knowledge about menstrual health and have reported that they did not know what was happening when they started their period and more than a quarter (26%) did not know what to do1 and all of this in the 21st Century. For far too long across the UK and globally the stories that girls share demonstrate that periods have been stigmatised for too long.

It disappointments and upsets me that in 2019 menstruation – a normal, essential bodily function of 50% of the population is still seen as taboo by so many. Nurses, midwives and health visitors are in an ideal position to transform girls’ experiences of their periods, as they make every contact count, to end the challenges that girls are facing and to break down the taboos that still exist making girls feel ashamed of their bodies when they are having their period. Until the stigma that surrounds periods is made history women will continue to suffer and unless everyone is educated about what is normal and what is not, then the abhorrent and unacceptable 7.5 years delay in making a diagnosis of endometriosis2 will never reduce.

This curriculum development is long overdue and should be welcomed, ending the stigma that is too often associated with menstruation treating it as a dirty secret. The key aim of introducing menstrual wellbeing education into the curriculum for the next generation is that all people not (only girls) should learn about what is normal and safe, as part of taking care of physical and mental health. Boys and girls will be taught about menstrual health, the menstrual cycle and relationships starting in primary school. As students move to secondary school lessons will address relationships and sex, consent and domestic violence. The next step surely is to roll this out across all of the UK.

In Wales sex education guidance is being consulted upon, in Northern Ireland the Department of Education requires each school to have its own written policy on how it addresses the delivery of relationship and sex education. In 2014, guidance on sex education was introduced in Scotland however, the curriculum is non-statutory and any decisions made about which topics are included in the curriculum is left for schools and local authorities to decide. All of our children need to be empowered to make better choices.

Ian Peate, Professor of Nursing and Head of School of Health Studies, Gibraltar

References

1. Plan International UK. Break the Barriers: Girls’ Experience of Mensuration in the UK. 2018.

https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-break-the-barrier... last accessed June 2019

2. Endometriosis UK. Getting Diagnosed with Endometriosis. 2019.

https://www.endometriosis-uk.org/getting-diagnosed... last accessed June 2019

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