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ScienceAugust 16, 2019

Teaching girls about periods should start at primary school, new data suggests

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A new study has found that nearly 50% of New Zealand girls are getting their periods before high school. Experts say it is time for our education system to step up. 

Nearly 50% of New Zealand girls will have their first period before they begin secondary school, and 6.3% while they are still at primary school, a new study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal has found. As a result of this data, experts are calling on the Ministry of Education to teach girls about managing menstruation at a younger age and provide adequate infrastructure including sanitary bins and free sanitary products in schools. 

Although the data has found that the average age of first menarche is 13.2, a significant number of New Zealand girls begin menstruating before secondary school – 11,700 at intermediate and 1,900 at primary school per year. “We know for sure now that a huge number of girls get their period earlier than we thought,” says Dr Sarah Donovan, public health researcher from the University of Otago and co-author of the article with Lucy Lelfar-Barnard. 

The results suggest that urgent action needs to be taken in our education sector, Donovan says, to ensure that girls are adequately equipped to deal with their periods. “If you aren’t expecting this to happen to you, and it happens at primary school, it’s actually a really big deal and can be quite traumatic,” she says. “So there needs to be an urgent audit within schools to find out what they are teaching and to what age – and if they even implement that content at all.” 

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, says that sexual health education remains a key learning focus within the health and physical education curriculum. “It is a compulsory subject from years 1 to 10, and is an elective subject at years 11 to 13. Schools, in consultation with their community, are best-placed to make decisions about their health curriculum for their students.” 

It is that same community consultation process, says Donovan that has led to decades of inconsistent and inadequate education around menstruation. “School boards have quite a big influence, and if they are dominated by parents who are conservative, or religious, or just don’t feel comfortable teaching girls about their periods, then you could feasibly have schools who don’t teach them anything until they get to high school.”

The new data also suggests the need for mandatory sanitary bins in primary schools, an issue last brought to national attention in 2017 when a 10 year old was sent home from school because they didn’t have a suitable receptacle for her used sanitary items. “When ERO look at the infrastructure in our schools, they also need to ensure that adequate facilities for girls are provided,” says Donovan, who would also like to see free pads and tampons in every school.

Much like how they deploy the health curriculum, the level of support around feminine hygiene currently remains at the discretion of each individual school. “Schools can decide to provide feminine hygiene products to their students as part of their health curriculum,” says MacGregor-Reid. “They also make their own decisions about what facilities they need to provide, based on the needs of their students.” 

These ad hoc conditions are undoubtedly a result of having no previous local research, says Donovan. “There really hasn’t been much interest in tracking what really is a key developmental milestone for women and girls in any ongoing way. Historically there’s been the attitude that women were supposed to keep quiet and get on with it, and much of that stigma and taboo still continues today – although we are starting to be a bit more open.”  

Although this research is just the first important piece in a largely unexplored field, Donovan has witnessed a welcome cultural shift around menstruation in recent years. “I think there’s been a lot of media attention around reducing the stigma attached to it, so now the policy and education just needs to catch up. The ministry now needs to take the lead in issuing a stricter guidance around the education, and ensuring there is a sanitary bin in every school.

“It’s a no-brainer, really.”

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