A woman washes clothes in Lake Chad in Ngouboua, Chad, in 2015.

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Although period poverty disproportionately impacts those living in resource-limited settings, it can affect anyone and anytime. In 2020, the South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly, surveyed 3,000 young people between the ages of 7 and 22 about their perceptions and experiences of menstruation. She found that period poverty is impacting their lives through a lack of access to products, a lack of understanding of menstruation and its effects, and a lack of opportunities to find help, support and information.

Many young people face barriers to managing their menstruation which affects their attendance and full participation at school and work and impacts their involvement in social activities and sports.

An average of 1 in 4 young people in South Australia reported experiencing problems accessing period products when they needed them. The Commissioner heard that in some instances young people had been forced to resort to using toilet paper or even socks.

Even those who could easily access period products faced other issues, including a lack of adequate information to enable them to make informed choices about how to manage their period. This was exacerbated by young people being too embarrassed to ask for help and also not knowing who best to ask. 

For many Australians, periods are still a taboo subject, surrounded by stigma, myths and misconceptions. 

While some young people have said they receive comprehensive menstruation education while they’re at school, the Commissioner heard from thousands of young people who told her that their menstruation education was lacking and appeared to be inconsistent within and across schools. They reported that they felt it had not started early enough and had not met the health needs of all children and young people. They also said that it’s not available at all year levels and that it is often only one lesson per year. This is despite health and physical education programs, relationships and sexual health education programs and child safety programs all having been part of South Australia’s education curriculum for many years. 

The Commissioner published her findings in her Menstruation Matters report released in March 2021. As a result, South Australia’s Department for Education introduced free products for public schools. 

There is still much work to be done to raise awareness of the issues, taboo and stigma associated with menstruation and periods. The Commissioner is partnering with individuals and organisations to take action to make positive inroads into gender inequity and inequality across health, education, employment and all spheres of young people’s lives. 

Menstruation is largely overlooked in policies and practice. Menstrual health and well-being must be regarded as a systemic problem, and sustainable and coordinated responses must be developed beyond the provision of products and facilities. Investing in building the confidence and comfort of young people in managing their periods will help to equip them with the skills they need to overcome other gender-based inequities in their lives. The State has a role to foster conditions in which children can thrive, be safe, and adequately understand their own biology.

By listening to young people’s diverse experiences and insights, we can implement policy solutions that enable safe and dignified menstrual management, thereby working to improve lifelong health and wellbeing, education attendance, and social engagement outcomes. For example, the Commissioner is currently speaking with girls in sports to identify the support they need to enable them to stay engaged with sports and other physical activities while menstruating. This includes providing young people with a better understanding of how menstruation impacts their bodies throughout their cycle. 

In June 2021, the Commissioner organised a National Period Summit with partners Taboo, Chalice and GOGO Foundation, Period Revolution, and Modibodi. The Summit was held to raise awareness of period poverty and highlight areas for future action. More than 100 participants gathered in Adelaide to discuss periods and menstruation more broadly. 

Following the Summit the Commissioner established a Menstruation Research Group – a network of academics working across Australia to further research into menstruation. Their areas of research are diverse and include specialisations in business, health, education and the environment.

She has recently announced provision of several small grants which will be used by local councils, community groups and sports clubs across South Australia to support menstruation awareness-raising campaigns. They will also be used to provide period-friendly sports kits and free products, along with educational programs that will support young people of all genders to gain a better understanding of menstruation to help with destigmatising and removal of period taboos.

Helen Connolly is South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, advocating on their behalf in relation to issues that intersect with their child rights and ensuring they have a voice in matters that directly impact them. For more information about actions to end period poverty and resources relating to menstruation, visit the Commissioner’s dedicated website: https://endperiodpoverty.com.au/
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