(*Photo: Isabella Refalo)
Sixteen-year-old Ebony Lagarez has spent years at school learning all about Maths, English and Science, but doesn’t know much about her own body – especially when it comes to her period.
With purchases of sustainable sanitary products increasing by 49 per cent in the last quarter through items such as menstrual cups and reusable pads, experts and advocates are pushing for the education system to make these products mainstream.
“In school we do learn the biological process, but I think we should be learning more about how to deal with it,” Ebony told Central News. “For example, we didn’t discuss period pain or the different options that you can use to reduce pain.”
“A lot of my friends suffered and didn’t know what to do about it… we should be learning a lot more of that.”
Scotland made international headlines in February this year after women’s sanitary products became free across the country. Three months ago, the New Zealand government successfully called for sanitary products to be free and accessible in high schools – and a month later, in July, Victoria did the same.
Now advocates want the rest of Australia to follow their footsteps in the fight against period poverty.
Rosie Sheba founded Sustainable Menstruation Australia, which as its name suggests, is a business that sells menstrual cups.
The mother and entrepreneur suspects the reason her business has been slow to take off is because of the lack of education about sustainable sanitary products, in both schools and the health care sector.
Additionally, while Sheba is passionate about her business, consumers only need a cup every 10 years, making business revenue extremely inconsistent.
Ms Sheba spoke of the worrying concerns about some sanitary products, including that tampons contain bleaches and dioxides which have only been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for oral use, not vaginal use.
“The membrane inside your vaginal wall is ten times more absorbent than your stomach and there’s been no testing on that,” she said.
“Why aren’t these [sustainable sanitary items] mainstream?” They make so much sense. Better for the environment, better for your body and better for your pocket.”
Ms Sheba hopes to soon focus on the educational side of her business. But where do we start to normalise the use of these products?
Demi Spaccavento is the founder of Bright Girl Health, a service which delivers menstrual health presentations in schools for girls. She wants period education to be a normal part of every classroom but she recognises her goal is a long way off.
“Why wouldn’t we welcome into the conversation the opportunity to teach people about how their period product choices could impact the planet?” she said.
She’s frustrated because she wants to teach as many teenage girls as possible but can only educate students if the school has the budget to spare for her teaching.
“Why aren’t we placing value on specific education for this specific need? I don’t think funding will come until the people in charge place more value on it… I can’t come in unless the school has the money.”
Feeling strongly about the issue, Ms Spaccavento has written the book “Bright Girl Health” which shines a light on menstrual health. With many young women wanting to learn more.
She has garnered a large following on Instagram, sharing tips and tricks about women’s health and menstruation.
“There definitely needs to be more funding [in] schools for period education.”
“There just needs to be more value placed on it and I know in my experience approaching schools to do period health seminars, I struggle to get the deputies, or the principals or the executive boards… to see it is worth their time and money.”
There’s too much taboo in schools about periods, even though it’s a normal bodily function, according to Ms Spaccavento.
“In an ideal world there would be more focus on period education for boys and girls. I’m going into schools and doing my talks. We go deep into things and don’t censor very much. We equip teachers with kits and learning resources and students with more information to learn more later on after the presentation has stopped.”
Ms Spaccavento believes it’s just as important for boys to be informed considering they will be husbands and fathers in the future and better equipped for supporting women during their menstruation.
Until girls from young ages know about their own bodies, more invasive yet healthier sanitary options such as menstrual cups will remain taboo and avoided.
Rochelle Courtenay, the founder and managing director of “Share the Dignity”, wants homeless women to be afforded the dignity and life most other women have. That includes having enough pads and tampons.
Some homeless women have reportedly used torn up mattresses and McDonalds napkins to staunch the flow of blood when on their periods, with not enough money to buy basic sanitary items.
“We do a lot of advocacy work about periods and removing the shame and stigma and had a massive role in removing the tampon tax in 2018,” Ms Courtenay said.
“We absolutely want sustainable products because that means we don’t need to be needed as much.”
“We are looking into having menstrual cups donated, but getting them donated compared to five dollar packets of pads and tampons is very different.”
Ms Courtenay believes while it is important to provide menstrual cups, it’s just as important to give women choice and education regarding their menstruation.
Next year Share the Dignity is planning a campaign, “Period Pride” in conjunction with Facebook to change the narrative of periods and remove the stigma.
“Until we remove the stigma, we are not going to be getting much further in educating anyway.”