One in five girls and young women in Britain are experiencing abusive behaviour linked to their periods — and the stigma and shame that still exists around menstruation is contributing to education and health issues.
To mark Menstrual Health Day on Tuesday, Plan International UK published new research showing that over half of respondents (57%) had experienced negative comments about their period.
The survey asked girls between 14 and 21 years old about their experiences, in a further effort to wake us all up to how menstruation is impacting students' physical and mental health, and access to education.
Of those that responded to the survey, students reported being called dirty or disgusting (10%); comments about their perceived mood or behaviour (36%); teasing about period products (15%); comments about leaking (18%); and comments that made them feel ashamed or uncomfortable (14%).
Devastatingly, less than half (49%) went on to tell anyone about their experience, instead choosing to suffer in silence.
2/3 of girls tell us they missed school because of their period, with anxiety+embarrassment among the reasons #MHD2019— PlanInternational UK (@PlanUK) May 28, 2019
Periods are a universal fact of life but sadly so is the stigma attached to them #TeamMenstrualCycle
Support our work on #PeriodStigma▶️https://t.co/lCiNco5UScpic.twitter.com/NM13FAoiwo
“I’ve heard periods called awful, disgusting. I’ve been told to ‘get over it,’” one respondent, 17-year-old Atlanta from Manchester, told Plan. “When my friends and I would try to discuss periods, boys would tell us to be quiet.”
“One boy even called me ‘dirty’ and refused to sit next to me in class after he overheard me talking about my period privately to a teacher,” she added. “I was so embarrassed that I went home for the rest of the day.”
And, according to Plan International, these negative feelings about periods are “entrenched in girls” from the very first period — with half saying they felt anxious, a third embarrassed, and three in 10 saying they felt frightened.
One in seven respondents said they “didn’t know what was happening” when they first started their periods, and a third said they "didn't know what to do."
As well as contributing to making periods more generally uncomfortable and unpleasant, stigma and shame is also having a negative impact on students’ education.
Some 66% students told Plan that they had missed a part or even a full day of school because of their period. Among the reasons they cited for missing school were concerns about leaking (39%); anxiety about their period (28%); and embarrassment (19%).
Of those who had missed school, 40% said they struggled to catch up afterwards as a result.
And as well as putting an obstacle between students and their education, period stigma and period poverty — when people struggle to afford the sanitary products to properly manage their periods — are also putting people’s health at risk.
1/3 of UK girls say they didn't know what to do when they started their period #MHD2019— PlanInternational UK (@PlanUK) May 28, 2019
It’s vital they've access to quality education on #MenstrualHealth, sanitation, clean water & products to manage their periods confidently #TeamMenstrualCycle
For example, 27% of respondents said they had overused a sanitary product because they couldn’t afford a fresh one.
And 79% said they had experienced symptoms linked to their period that worried them — but that they hadn’t seen a doctor or health professional. Of these, 27% said it was because they were too embarrassed.
As a result of Plan’s work to improve access to period products in the UK, and tackle the stigma and shame surrounding periods, the organisation has also now been announced as the co-chair of the government’s new period poverty taskforce — alongside Procter & Gamble and the UK’s Minister for Women & Equalities Penny Mordaunt.
The taskforce will work together with charities and businesses to develop a response to period poverty in the UK, in a way that aims to be both comprehensive and sustainable, according to the government statement published on Tuesday.
As well as the taskforce itself, the UK government has also announced in recent months that period products will be made available for free in primary and secondary schools, and in hospitals and police custody.
The taskforce is intending to develop the work around access to period products, but also to seek to tackle the stigma and menstrual health education issues highlighted by the Plan research.
“For too long, women and girls in the UK have faced unnecessary adversity around their periods,” said Mordaunt. “Now, working together on the Period Poverty Taskforce, we can take action to create a strong and viable solution to period poverty in the UK.”
Tanya Barron, chief executive at Plan UK, described the stigma and shame associated with periods as “unacceptable.”
“Not only is this damaging girls’ confidence and self-esteem, it’s also having an often overlooked impact on their education,” she said. “Girls tell us they are missing out on school because of their period and struggling to catch up on schoolwork as a result.”
“We can’t allow this to continue,” she continued. “If girls around the world — including here in the UK — are to reach their full potential then we must put an end to the stigma and taboo around periods.”
Barron highlighted that the best way to do that “is through education and open conversations that normalise periods and put an end to the silence.”