Youth-Led Research Can Help Uncover and End Period Stigma and Discrimination, say Sarah Dickins, Lily Hallam and Samantha Streibl.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought wide-reaching challenges to people worldwide. One such challenge, although widely overlooked, under-resourced and disregarded, is shared by every young menstruator: period management.
Each menstrual health experience is unique, but often includes bleeding, discomfort, hormone changes and reproductive medicine. However, over the last year our coping and healthcare options have become significantly more limited. Whether it be regular catch-up with friends, public exercise or even urgent medical intervention. Lockdown has made menstrual health management resources inaccessible to young menstruators.
Young Menstruators and COVID-19.
These were some of the key findings of Periods During a Pandemic, the first and largest youth-led UK study of young menstruators’ experiences of periods during the Covid-19 pandemic. From September 2020 to March 2021, as part of Restless Development’s Build Back Better programme, our youth-led research team gathered and analysed the stories of 615 menstruators aged 18-35 from around the UK.
The research uncovered young people’s individual experiences and highlighted current health system injustices. It found that nearly 1 in 3 young menstruators had less or much less access to menstrual health resources during the lockdown than before the pandemic, with 35% of respondents changing one or more period products because their previous products were either inaccessible, unavailable or unaffordable.
Crucially, menstrual injustice was not experienced equally by all young adults. Of the young people who changed period products, 50% of respondents from Black, Asian, mixed and other Minority Ethnic backgrounds, compared to 34% of white respondents, did so because previous products were inaccessible, unavailable and unaffordable.
The Pandemic and Period Stigma.
One of the most common underlying themes, across these interpersonal, collective and systemic experiences, was period stigma.
Period stigma, also known as menstrual stigma and period shame, can take the form of any act of discrimination based on the cultural taboo of menstruation. This includes emotional abuse, social exclusion or dismissal, and even physical violence (for more information on this definition, see the UNFPA’s page on menstruation and human rights). The research revealed that young adult menstruators in the UK have experienced a wide range of stigma and shame related to their periods, both from others and themselves, during the pandemic.
It’s clear that some respondents’ experiences of period stigma were exacerbated by lockdown. Changing living circumstances, such as living with relatives in a family home or needing others to shop for period products whilst quarantining, also contributed to some respondents’ feelings of shame, as they felt less able to be open about their period symptoms and needs. Another common source of stigma and invalidation came from professional medical systems themselves, as many respondents found regular and urgent appointments cancelled, rescheduled or simply rejected, as even severe period symptoms were not considered as important as other medical conditions during the pandemic.
Some young menstruators also reflected society’s discriminatory or dismissive attitudes towards their own menstrual health. Many respondents said they thought their menstrual health was less important than other medical conditions, hence deserving of less medical attention and concern. This perception was particularly heightened as a result of the pandemic, with some respondents even self-prescribing strong painkillers or other forms of non-professional medical care
This is consistent with previous research on menstrual injustice and stigma in the UK. A 2018 study commissioned by ActionAid reveals that 37% of UK women have experienced bullying, name-calling and isolation from others due to their period, whilst Plan International UK’s 2020 survey of girls in the UK found that 48% felt embarrassed by their period and around 12% have even been told not to talk about menstruation in front of their parents.
It’s clear that more must be done to destigmatise menstrual health, especially as we move towards a post-Covid world.
A stigma-free period is vital for helping young menstruators to feel comfortable and empowered to advocate for their sexual and reproductive health rights and needs to normalise and celebrate a natural body cycle. How can we promote greater tolerance and support for menstruators across society?
As part of our research we’ve made the following recommendations for centring the voices, needs and rights of young menstruators in a socially just and stigma-free menstrual healthcare across the UK:
Young menstruators, from a range of backgrounds, should be meaningfully involved in all aspects of menstrual healthcare planning, both during the pandemic and beyond, to ensure that healthcare planning takes seriously and responds appropriately to their varied needs and experiences
Healthcare providers, such as the NHS and relevant charitable organisations, should publicly encourage menstruators of all ages to seek appropriate medical support or advice during the Covid-19 pandemic if they experience any new or more severe menstrual health symptoms
Healthcare bodies and policymakers should develop alternative ways for young menstruators to access the products and guidance that they need during lockdown, for example, a free online platform or mobile application for obtaining contraceptives and period products
Menstrual health policymakers and researchers must examine more closely the discrepancies experienced by young menstruators from Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic backgrounds in accessing menstrual health products and guidance, and implement policies to ensure that no young menstruator goes without the support they need
Wherever possible, and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, employers should allow menstruators to work from home and/or offer other reasonable adjustments to support period management during the working week
We passionately believe that young menstruators’ diverse experiences of stigma and shame, as well as our resilience in the face of adversity, make us experts in challenging these discriminatory attitudes.
Only by empowering and validating the experiences and needs of young adult menstruators from right across the UK, and by giving us a platform to speak out in high-level policy spaces, can we truly stop period stigma against young people – both now and into a post-Covid future.
If you liked this article and want to find out more, read our full report for Restless Development, Periods During a Pandemic.
For more analysis on why we need more research on young people and menstrual health in the Covid-19 Pandemic, see our article for King’s College London journal ‘Feminist Perspectives’: Data, Dignity and Self-Determination
Sarah Dickins is a feminist Digital Data Specialist with over 5 years' experience in youth and gender justice research, monitoring and evaluation, and programming across Europe, South America and East Africa. She has an MA in Gender, Violence and Conflict and currently works in the Global Monitoring and Evaluation team at girls’ rights INGO, Plan International