Menstruation’s impact on university education ‘overlooked’

University students’ experiences attract some attention in developing countries but almost none in the West, study finds

December 21, 2021
Woman sits alone on a bench illustrating the isolating experience of transitioning from academia into industry
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Menstruation’s disruption of university education has been all but ignored in the West even though it affects more than half the student population.

A systematic review has found that severe period pain impairs students’ academic performance around the world, forcing them off campus and undermining their participation and concentration. Inadequate facilities and lack of sanitary products also take a toll.

But the impacts often go unnoticed by teaching staff, according to the University of Sydney’s Alana Munro, who is undertaking doctoral studies into an issue that is also overlooked by researchers.

The review, published in the journal Plos One, found that the menstrual experiences of university students had been examined through only 83 peer-reviewed studies worldwide in the past 30 years. Over three-quarters were conducted in low- and middle-income countries, with just four in the US, four in continental Europe, one in England and none in Australia.

Ms Munro criticised a misconception that “period poverty” was non-existent in high-income countries, despite the hardships facing many students. And while there was some acknowledgement of the disruption caused by menstrual disorders, almost no attention was paid to “sociocultural” factors such as stigma and shame.

She blamed a sense that people should “just get on with it”, combined with a long-standing tendency to disregard female physiology in medical studies. “There has been a bias in the research to not look at the menstrual cycle and how it affects health or other outcomes, because it was considered quite complex,” she said.

“It’s only now that we’re starting to understand that the menstrual cycle is important in shaping outcomes across the life course, and we have to give it greater attention.”

Ms Munro’s research has highlighted menstruation as a source of anxiety. Seventy per cent of respondents to a snap survey reported that their periods impacted their school, university or work attendance, with 82 per cent favouring access to menstrual leave.

She said other universities should follow Sydney’s lead in providing vending machines with free menstrual products, not only to help financially struggling students but also to save people from having to leave campus to buy supplies.

But she cautioned against “one size fits all” policy responses, noting that “everyone experiences menstruation differently”.

“Students…have quite interesting and creative coping strategies. We don’t want to say that they’re victims of menstruation. They know what they’re doing. We just need to better support them on their journey through education.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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