Free sanitary items will be made accessible to students across schools in Queensland yet six out of ten students do not feel comfortable talking to their teachers about their periods.
State schools in Queensland will soon provide free sanitary products to their students via vending machines, giving girls access to a period pack composed of six tampons and two pads.
Part of a $13.3 million investment in the upcoming state budget, the project aims to reduce learning barriers for students who cannot afford sanitary products at home and tackle the stigma associated with periods.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk believes access to period products at school is essential as some students have to miss school due to a lack of access.
“Providing access to free period products can make a real difference, especially for students whose families are doing it tough, have unstable accommodation or are fleeing domestic and family violence,” Palaszczuk said.
In Australia, period poverty is a real issue for girls and women, with more than one in five ‘improvising’ a sanitary item using toilet paper, socks and other cloth to replace pads or tampons.
The announcement from the Queensland Premier to provide free sanitary items across schools has been welcomed by experts as an essential first step in breaking stigma around menstruation, yet ‘more needs to be done’.
“We need to open up conversations around how we can support students and equally how we provide educators with the knowledge that they need to assist students,” said Western Sydney University lecturer Dr Michelle O’Shea.
O’Shea believes that having access to vending machines will help students to remove some of the discomfort and the shame they can feel when having to ask a teacher or an administrative staff member for sanitary products.
“You shouldn't have to go to the librarian or you shouldn't have to go up to the front office and ask for that product.
“I'd like to think that it's a little bit like toilet paper and soap, it should be available in the bathroom,” O’Shea told Education Review.
Periods at school are much more than just having access to sanitary items, O'Shea said; girls' school attendance and school results are dropping due to the issue.
A recent study published by Western Sydney University found that 3 out of 10 girls are skipping class due to painful periods.
In addition, 9 out of 10 women and girls have period pain, and 1 in 2 students don’t feel they performed as well in a test or an exam due to symptoms.
“By virtue of pain, they're missing classes and they're not performing as they might ordinarily do without periods pain,” O’Shea said.
“We would like to see a situation where students can take a hot water bottle to school, have additional time to finish a task, or be able to manage their symptoms in a way that alleviates pain for them.
“We need schools to be open to the fact that girls experience periods differently, and that we certainly don't want girls suffering in silence.”
According to O’Shea, girls who menstruate at school often feel shame and do not want to disclose it, with six out of ten students reporting being uncomfortable talking to their teachers about their periods.
“Schools need to be creating a culture and an environment where there can be a dialogue.
“In one particular case, a student talked about not being allowed to go to the toilet during class time, despite the fact that her period product had failed and she had blood stains on her uniform.
“These situations impact girls and their dignity, they should be able to access the bathroom at any time to change their sanitary products or uniform."
There is a real need to support educators in period management, O’Shea said, with teachers needing to be provided with resources around how to talk about these issues sensitively.
“Teachers need help to be able to support students with their period pain and to help them remain engaged in education.”
To counteract the current stigma around periods, O’Shea believes the curriculum is an option to put the issue on the table.
“From business studies, to mathematics and PE, the curriculum can be used to have conversations about periods.
“Case studies, conversation around work issues related to period, we can use menstruation as a topic of discussion that we address sensitively through the curricula.
“And this should be an education and an awareness for everyone, we really need to move away from taking girls and boys away separately while talking about menstruation,” O’Shea added.
What’s the current situation at school?
Constanza, a year 11 student in Western Sydney, experienced period pain the hard way, with multiple school days missed and even visits to the hospital ward.
Yet, she could not miss her classes every time she experienced period pain and had to put up with "incomprehensible teachers".
“[I found] sport teachers are the worst, for some reason they are so obsessed with making you continue to do the sport even though I told them that I was in a lot of pain,” Constanza told Education Review.
“They would just tell me, ‘it’s fine, exercise helps’, ‘drink a lot of water, take medication’.
“But, there's nothing that can really help you at school.”
In addition to not feeling supported by her teachers, Constanza believes another barrier to menstruating students' comfort at school is the state of the bathrooms.
In recent weeks, the state of school bathrooms has been an issue across the country, with students refusing to use them due to them being filthy.
“In my previous school, for a long time, our bathrooms were not really fixed that well, they didn't flush all the time.
“And then the bins as well, they would be full and then you'd have nowhere to put your used sanitary protection.
“Which is obviously very bad if you're in your period, because you don't want anyone to see that.”
The young women believe that the stigma around periods can be eased with age and maturity, especially when it comes to disclosing being on your periods.
“I've learned more about myself and I understand my needs. If I'm feeling bad, I either don’t go to school or if I’m there already I just tell someone so I can go home.
“I don’t feel embarrassed anymore.”
Constanza also believes the school's attitude has changed toward her needs as she has grown up.
“I do think that they take senior girls more seriously; I think that it has to do with the fact that they probably think that we're growing into women now.
“Which is really stupid because you can have problems with it at any age.
“I definitely think that if I told them I was experiencing cramps or something, they would just probably let me go home, I guess, in an easier way than they would let someone younger,” she said.
All around the world, girls are experiencing periods differently, with the median age for first period being 12, but some get their first menstruation as young as 8 years of age.
The need to educate younger girls is real, as not all parents have ‘the talk’ with their children.
“Growing up, I didn't really see anyone talk about periods at all, and if my mum didn't tell me about periods when I was younger, before I'd gotten it, I don't think I would've known what it was,” Constanza said.
“School doesn't teach you anything about periods in primary school until you reach year six, but some people get it before that.
“I think I would have benefited from that when I was younger.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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