The Importance of Menstrual Health Education

Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.

The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”

The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.

For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.

A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”

Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.

A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.

Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.

This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.

One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”

Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.

It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

All Teachers Need Mandatory Training on FGM

Written by Katrina Lambert (18) and Caitlin Moore (18) – Youth For Change UK members

Ever felt like decision makers aren’t listening to young people? That our voices are ignored and belittled in society? We certainly do sometimes. And we’ve decided to make some noise about it.

We are members of Youth for Change, a global network of youth activists who aim to tackle gender-based violence.

The best way to create positive change is through young people working together to make a difference. We are the ones affected – we should be the ones influencing policy.

Over the last few years we have been tackling the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is a form of violence against girls. It can result in a lifetime of pain, psychological problems and difficulty in childbirth.

Around 125 million girls have been cut worldwide. An estimated 137,000 girls and women live with FGM in the UK.

In 2017, our research found that 90% of young people surveyed said that learning about FGM as part of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would help to protect and empower them and their peers. This was the focus of our campaign to get FGM in the RSE curriculum.

Therefore, we were incredibly excited when it was announced that Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would be compulsory in every school in England as of 2020. Education plays an absolutely crucial role in young people’s lives (as two school students, we can verify this 100%).

Having FGM taught in schools is our chance to take a step forward in ending this harmful practice.

At Youth for Change, when the Department for Education released the online curriculum consultations, we engaged with our networks and communities to strengthen the voice advocating for FGM to be included.

We fed this back to the Department for Education when a group of us met with senior civil servants last year. We also met with Carolyn Harris MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, to discuss the importance of empowering young people through educating them on FGM.

As a result, questions about FGM being a priority area of the new curriculum were raised in Parliamentary Questions, to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP.

In February 2019, it was celebrations all round. We heard that FGM was to be included as a topic in the curriculum. However, as tempting as it may be, we can’t stop now and pat ourselves on the back.

Yes, we have taken a monumental step in the direction towards eradicating FGM. However, in order to ensure that the new curriculum can appropriately educate and empower young people on the issue, teachers must feel equipped.

This is why Youth for Change is calling for mandatory training for all teachers on FGM.

Our research shows that 94% of young people feel school staff don’t know enough about FGM. If there is any chance of the the new curriculum guidance achieving its fullest positive impact, teachers must be trained.

When students are aware of the issue and feel confident that their teachers understand it, then they will naturally feel more protected and comfortable in opening up conversations. This is essential in increasing reporting and saving the lives of thousands of young women and girls across the UK.

Mandatory training for teachers will ensure that every pupil in the UK gets equal access to the FGM education they deserve, regardless of what part of the country they happen to be educated in.

The benefits of training teachers in FGM are not limited to students. It will also empower teachers to feel equipped to take on their role.

In fully understanding their legal responsibilities, including mandatory reporting, teachers will able to confidently safeguard their students and signpost the correct support. Training is absolutely essential. Without it, the huge changes to the curriculum will not be able to support and educate young people.

What can you do?

Get involved with us as we continue to press for standardised, mandatory training for teachers on FGM! Find us on twitter @YouthForChange. And while you’re here, support all of the other amazing activists in our network, such as IKWRO, who are calling for FGM to be tackled earlier on in education.

We’re not going to stop making noise. We need to ensure that the education young people receive reflects what they want and need to learn. We very much hope that the Government will listen to our calls to introduce mandatory training. Together, we can move even closer to eradicating FGM in the UK once and for all.

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A Different Take on Inclusion

My new job requires me to do a lot of research on teacher preparation programs in the United States. The need for diversity – in this case, specifically racial diversity – is mentioned in numerous reports on the current state of the teaching profession.

Being a woman of color, I had become kind of numb to the idea as the term is thrown around so much and I often feel as though I serve as the only marker of ‘diversity’ in various spaces. 

As I continued my research, the word just kept jumping out at me. Diversity was in almost every report, spoken at every seminar, and used by every university education program. Then the statistical data behind why diversity is necessary began to come to light. In 2012, 49% of secondary students in the US were of color but only 12% of their teachers were. That’s a huge disparity, right? This statistic also made me reflect on my own secondary education career and realize I only ever had one teacher who looked like me. Even with this knowledge, I was still not fully ready for what I was to find next…

Researchers at the Institute of Labor Economics found that low-income Black male students in North Carolina who have just one Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider attending college.

As I continued to search, I kept seeing different iterations of this phrase, ‘students of color perform better academically and are suspended at lower rates when exposed to at least one educator of their own ethnicity,’ but I still hadn’t wondered why that was the case.

Next, I read a report which stated students of color have higher levels of achievement when they have a teacher of color because those teachers hold a more positive perception of their students both academically and behaviorally compared to non-minority teachers.

As I read this, I had such a tough time grasping what was being said. Basically, a lot of the reports on the need for diversity were showing that non-minority teachers let their prejudice and stereotypes of minority students get in the way of their teaching ability – to such an extent that it negatively affects students of color – and the proposed solution is to hire more minority teachers. Not to call non-minority teachers to task or equip them to better serve their ALL of their students.

I was appalled by the proposed solution of merely diversifying the teaching profession. That lets so many people in our society out of doing the real work that is necessary to overcome racial stereotypes and prejudices – as these issues cannot be solved by people of color themselves.

At the same time, I was seeing the same idea being used in a social movement – the latest wave of the #MeToo campaign. Over the past few weeks, I have watched #MeToo take over my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds as so many – too many – female celebrities, activists, colleagues, and even close friends have all experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment or assault, most often at the hands of men.

As more and more stories of #MeToo are shared, I find it interesting that when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment of assault against women, it is the women we focus on the most, rather than the men who help to perpetuate this culture of abuse.

In the same way racism is not just an issue for people of color, sexual assault and harassment is not just an issue for women. But too often, these issues are labeled as the responsibility of those being harmed by them the most. The idea of inclusion needs to be applied to all actors who have a stake in an issue and not just to those who feel the direct and immediate effects of racism or sexual harassment or assault. We all share the responsibility of creating a more equitable and safe society.