This week on The Leak we are featuring the work of Minnie King and Dr Nina Hall as they share their findings on menstruation attitudes amongst adolescent boys and girls in a remote Indigenous communities in Western Cape York with her work in the Dignity Everyday cultural project. 

Looking back, we made a rather risky move. Not only did we seek to discuss menstruation- such a taboo topic in so many cultures- but we also discussed this ‘women’s business’ topic with Indigenous high school students. Yet we felt there was a strong need for our ‘Dignity Everyday’ pilot project. 

Anecdotal findings from research conducted in Central Australia indicated that school-aged girls living in remote Australian communities may be experiencing similar menstrual challenges to those living in low- and middle-income countries, which may be influencing school attendance. 

These findings initiated an investigation into the state of menstrual health and hygiene for female students living in their own community, including how these challenges and options may relate to school attendance. It was led by Women on Country, a local women’s group in the Western Cape, Queensland, founded by Indigenous businesswoman, mother and community member, Minnie King. Following a yarning circle discussion gathering Indigenous Australian women leaders from across the country to discuss menstrual health challenges and options, Minnie invited Nina Hall, a non-Indigenous academic, to work together with remote Australian students both Indigenous and non-Indigenous at a school in Western Cape York, Far North Queensland.

Together, we embarked on a cultural and social pilot project. We liaised closely with the local school, the Department of Education and cultural groups representing the community for appropriate permissions. Sixty percent of the school’s student population is Indigenous, and we carefully designed a process of engaging with the students to ensure a trusted space- both socially and culturally. Key to the success of the pilot project were the resources we invested in the planning phase. We recognised from the outset that we were tackling not only a taboo topic but engaging with remote Indigenous students that required the most culturally sensitive, appropriate and fit for purpose methods. This ensured the school community were kept abreast of the sessions and nature of the pilot but also maximised the participation by the students and surprisingly generated a serious level of enthusiasm and knowledge sharing.  

The results were dynamic, engaged and important conversations. The schoolgirls we engaged with were aged from ten to 18 years old, and they had so much to share. Together, we answered their questions, captured their challenges, worked with them to prioritise their responses. Once we opened up this secret, hidden topic into a careful conversation, there was so much that everyone wanted to know and to share. Topping their list (in order; see Table 1) were how to manage pain, how to attend school and be ready for learning when you are feeling emotional and have cramps or are concerned about leaking, and how to manage at home without product storage, without privacy, and with teasing. 

Table 1: Female student-defined and -prioritised challenges for addressing menstrual health and hygiene, totalled by and across each age group

Then the girls challenged us to do something that might reduce the teasing (their third priority): ‘next time you come back, please talk to the boys! They tease us. They don’t understand.’ 

So we did. In the company of a male local Indigenous educator and four other male teachers plus a colleague, I ran Q&A sessions with the middle and senior high school boys in the Western Cape. It was the middle of a hot day in the school hall. There were hundreds of boys and the noise level was high. But as our discussion progressed we learned two very valuable aspects from these boys: Firstly, their level of knowledge was low (see Figure 1): ‘Do boys have periods? Is the bleeding really bad? Why do people go through puberty to become an adult?’

Figure 1: Boys’ anonymously-posed questions during Q&A, by age group

 

Secondly, when we shared the girls’ challenge priorities, the boys reflected on this as the experience of their mums, sisters and girlfriends (see Table 2). They fired into action with big-hearted ideas: ‘Buy it yourself for her’, ‘give them respect …  understanding … sympathy’, ‘don’t go round telling everyone (that they’ve got it)’, and my personal favourite: ‘Keep some stock in your ute’. 

Table 2: Male student-defined options for assisting in alleviating girls’ menstrual health and hygiene challenges, Years 7-12

Girls’ Challenges Boys’ options for assisting
Mood swings; Annoyed; Tiredness; hormonal changes; Stress Be sensitive; Support; Not harass them; Give space; ‘help out round the house’; Heat pack; ‘be there for them’ / ‘support them’; Walk off/ give them space; Do some jobs
Cost of products Get a job (part-time); Ask mum and dad for $; You [boys] buy it for them; Keep spares; ‘ask if they need to go to the servo to by the stuff’; Pay for it; Buy it yourself for her
Feeling shame/embarrassed Be accepting; Be supportive; Don’t be judgemental; ‘help them when they need it most’; ‘don’t harass them’; ‘leave them alone’; ‘give them respect’; ‘understanding’; ‘sympathy for them’; ‘respect them’; ‘don’t make fun’; ‘don’t go round telling everyone (that they’ve got it)’; ‘hang around them’
Feel nervous Scared to show their products; New to school; Encourage them
Pain/discomfort Pain killers; Pillow/blanket/care packages; Food/chocolate
Sanitary products stock for emergencies (school, home) Keep some stock in your ute
Managing blood (can’t wear white; can’t go out as much/swimming; navigate daily live; not in mood for sex) ‘Don’t force them’

These responses reveal the value in having open, trusted conversation about topics that can make daily (monthly) life difficult- and finding a way through [watch the video from 24 minutes]. We found that amid the awkwardness of this topic, the fear, dread and drudgery of knowing that period is always coming up again, there was a pride held by those girls in their emerging womanhood. It was captured in a spontaneous response during the yarning circle that we held with year 6 girls:

Year six girl: “Getting your thing can make you feel shame.”

Indigenous facilitator: “To avoid feeling shame, what should we do?”

Year six girl: “Be proud.”

Indigenous facilitator: “Proud to be what?”

Year six girl and her class (in unison): “Proud to be a woman!”

Acknowledgement: We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land this project was conducted, the Alngith People, and acknowledge other Traditional Owners and Language Groups of the Western Cape and pay our respects to all their Aboriginal Elders past, present, and emerging.

Minnie King

Ms Minnie King is an Umaii woman who co-founded Women on Country in the Western Cape region to support Indigenous women’s health. She is a businesswoman and Managing Director of Embley Contracting, an engineering and environmental management business in Weipa established to capture a diverse range of opportunities for Aboriginal people that represent real investment in their current and future lives.

Dr Nina Lansbury Hall

Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland

Dr Nina Lansbury Hall is a researcher on environmental health within The University of Queensland’s School of Public Health. Her current research at UQ examines health aspects for remote Indigenous community residents on both mainland Australia and in the Torres Strait in terms of housing, water and sewerage, and women's health.