Now More Than Ever, It’s Time for Universal Menstrual Education for Gender Equality

At this critical juncture with reproductive rights and Title IX’s anniversary, states should commit to normalizing menstruation and disseminating accurate, universal menstrual education.

A student of the “Girl Up” club stocks a school bathroom with free pads and tampons to push for menstrual equity, at Justice High School in Falls Church, Va, on Sept. 11, 2019. (Alastair Pike / AFP via Getty Images)

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to upend the constitutional right to abortion care and chip away at gender equality when it issues a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Now more than ever, it is time to find additional paths that create or strengthen gender equality. Menstrual education is one such path.

This year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28) kicked off a campaign to destigmatize and normalize menstruation by 2030. The date serves as a reminder that a common menstrual cycle is 28 days long and lasts for five days. Everyone should know these basics about menstruation and reproductive health more broadly.

But menstrual education is inadequate or nonexistent across America. Sex education is required in only twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia; only eighteen insist that it be medically accurate. And only a few laws explicitly integrate menstruation.

Without menstrual education and access to menstrual products, students’ attendance and performance are affected. Ninety-two percent of high school students report needing a new pad or tampon during school. Yet, period poverty, a lack of access to menstrual products due to economic circumstances, impacts students’ ability to safely address menstruation.

Without product access, students missed school (12.7 percent), arrived late (15 percent) and left early (23.91 percent). Another study shows that lack of product access prevented about half of Black and Latinx students from performing their best. A high school sophomore attested to the expense and difficulty obtaining menstrual products causing classmates to miss school, be distracted in class or be traumatized from bleeding through clothing.

This impact has led D.C., Maryland and a growing number of other jurisdictions to require schools to provide products. The increased presence of publicly provided products also amplifies menstrual education efforts by bringing products out of students’ sleeves and into schoolyard conversations and open spaces.  

Without product access, students missed school (12.7 percent), arrived late (15 percent) and left early (23.91 percent).

Students are often left in the dark about how their bodies work. Indeed, 79 percent of teens “feel that they need more in-depth [menstrual] education.” Students report that menstrual education, if provided, fails to engage them or shatter stigma and taboo. It also comes too late in the fifth or sixth grade—almost two years after 48 percent of African American girls and 15 percent of Caucasian girls begin menstruation, according to one study of low-income girls. One former student addressed the mismatched timing: “Some girls find out about their periods when they actually get them. It’s just never talked about in schooling.”

Most girls from the same study report feeling that their first period and menstruation were “embarrassing, traumatic, scary, and confusing” and “associated with feeling gross, dirty, smelly, and disgusting” and they tended to feel “unprepared and ill-equipped for this transition.” Menstrual education helps students more confidently navigate the turbulent waters of puberty and develop into adults with sexual and reproductive health knowledge.   

Too many students are excluded from menstrual education. Existing instruction is provided only to girls. Such sex segregation may result in menstruating students, who are in the boy’s grouping because they are transgender, intersex or gender-nonconforming, receiving no education. Plus, all students need to learn how to stay healthy and combat the stigma that contributes to pervasive harassment in schools. As one student attested, “all genders should understand what it is, how it works, its effects, and be sensitive to those that experience it” to reduce the “hostile school environment.”  

School officials also benefit from menstrual education and normalizing menstruation.

  • Students share that school officials at times stigmatize periods by encouraging students to hide menstruation and use code names for period products.
  • In a study of 1,000 teenagers, 80 percent acknowledge “a negative association with periods, that they are gross or unsanitary.”
  • Sixty-nine percent state that they “feel embarrassed [bringing] period products to the bathroom.”
  • Students also report that school nurses are not well-educated on endometriosis and express suspicion of students presenting debilitating pain and bleeding. 

This year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign arrived at a critical moment. Abortion and possibly contraception access are under attack. And it is the 50th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, the landmark sex equality in education law. The time is ripe for states to enact menstrual education laws that build on existing models from home and abroad.

For example, a new D.C. law mandates comprehensive menstrual education for all students in grade four. It must offer “information, support, and [an] enabling-school environment to manage menstruation with dignity, safety, and comfort.” Standards are being developed on a range of menstruation-related topics, covering experiences over a lifespan, from pain management to irregularities. Oregon has new regulations that require schools to provide menstrual dignity and health education that is “inclusive,” “not fear- or shame-based,” “culturally responsible” and “accessible for students with disabilities.”  

All students need to learn how to stay healthy and combat the stigma that contributes to pervasive harassment in schools.

Globally, other countries recognize the critical need for menstrual education. In Australia, a 2021 report articulates that “Schools are a significant site for addressing … menstrual stigma, a dearth of menstrual literacy, and period poverty.” Sharing survey results, a 2021 South Australia report found concerns about insufficient menstrual education, period poverty (experienced by one in four respondents), and obstacles to school, work, and sports participation because of menstruation. The report recommends that South Australia “[r]eview menstruation education to ensure all children, across primary and high schools, receive education beyond the biological cycle[, including] period management in day-to-day life, social and cultural aspects of menstruation, and practical information about products and support services.”

Similarly, the Kenyan Ministry of Health issued a Menstrual Hygiene Management Strategy Report 2019-2024, which addressed menstrual shame and discrimination. The ministry suggests improving menstruation education and the “inclusion and integration of information related to [menstrual management] into general, reproductive health and hygiene education materials, school health and adolescent policy.”

At this critical juncture with reproductive rights and Title IX’s anniversary, states should commit to engaging with the Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign to normalize menstruation and advance gender equality by disseminating accurate, universal menstrual education by 2030.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About and

Professor Margaret E. Johnson is an associate dean, professor of law, co-director of the Center on Applied Feminism, and director of the Bronfein Family Law Clinic at The University of Baltimore School of Law.
Professor Marcy L. Karin is the Jack and Lovell Olender professor of law and director of the Legislation/Civil Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.