No other area of school life relies on free samples or branded teaching resources. So why, when it comes to menstruation, have we ceded control to companies?
Iwoke up this week to the news that we were being urged to buy tampons for a worthy cause again. According to the charity Freedom4Girls, a school in Leeds has reported that girls are missing school because they can’t afford to buy menstrual products. In response, individuals and charities are donating disposable menstrual products, and calling for them to be provided free in all schools.
Donating free tampons for ever is a nice idea, but it’s a short-term solution that benefits multinational corporations as much as it helps kids, if not more so. Austerity and food poverty (including household toiletries poverty, which includes disposable menstrual products) have highlighted a bigger problem that was masked by the relative financial comfort in the UK a decade or so ago. The menstrual taboos were always there, though. It’s time to acknowledge that we need to start working on medium- and long-term solutions, such as improving menstruation education, removing branding from school resources and eradicating the period taboo for ever.
The news from Leeds was greeted with some very privileged “surely this can’t happen here” handwringing. But this isn’t even a recent development in the UK – it’s just the first time mainstream media has covered it; for those who research school absence, it’s nothing new.
In a letter published in the British Medical Journal in 2010, Dr Daniel Hindley noted that in a Bolton NHS foundation trust study, “menstruation problems” was listed as the fifth most common school absence reason among 251 primary and secondary pupils referred to the trust. He concluded: “It is essential that preventive and early intervention should be seen as the cornerstone of multi-agency working to ensure pupils’ right to education and to protect their health and wellbeing.”
But that didn’t happen seven years ago, and it’s not happening now. If these interventions and recommendations had been followed up, we wouldn’t have kids deciding to truant rather than feel they had the knowledge to manage menstruation themselves or the confidence to talk to parents or teachers.
If we can’t throw tampons at the problem for ever, what do we do instead? Now that it looks like sex and relationships education is finally going to be made compulsory, we actually have the opportunity to change things and make them stick.
We need to stop leaving lesson plans to companies that are in any way linked to the menstrual product industry. There are market research and projection reports up to 2020 telling the industry that they need to solicit schools to gain young, brand-loyal customers, and that advice hasn’t changed in a century.
Schools need to deal with this better themselves. They’re schools. What are they playing at? No other school subject relies on free samples or branded teaching resources. We need to keep brands away from national curriculum planning for menstruation education, and include experts.
So, policymakers: don’t tell schools to give out free disposables without teaching about reusables in equal measure and legislate against branded resources.
Schools: provide different brands of disposable pads and tampons in the toilets – especially during exams. Ensure school toilets are unlocked and accessible all day long, not just at break times, and that they’re clean and have hot water, soap, dryers and bins. Teach about puberty before it starts, and don’t single out early menstruators. Remove all outer packaging and complain to any companies that send you branded resources, or better still use unbranded, factually accurate, menstruation education resources, and vet everything with an expert on menstruation for quality.
And finally, since the girls from Leeds were confident enough to share their concerns, it’s most appropriate to direct some advice straight to them: if a company sells menstrual products, profit is always going to be their first priority, no matter how they dress it up, and the designs they use on the lesson plans or web content will look just like the product packaging. Don’t let yourself be bought and sold.
Demand to know about reusable menstrual products. You don’t have to spend all your money buying expensive disposables if you don’t want to or can’t. You can use menstrual cups or cloth pads too, or instead – they’re good for the environment and your wallet.
Oh, and take it from someone who got teased for leaking on their period at a slumber party while trapped in a blizzard at the age of 13: leaks are not the worst thing in the world. Stick together. I’m proud and impressed that you’re talking about this. And everyone else? Buying tampons for people only lasts for a certain period. It doesn’t address the taboos or end poverty – it feeds right into the rampant capitalism and disposable culture that got us here in the first place.