Breaking barriers in health and menstruation

Issue: Volume 103, Number 1

Posted: 25 January 2024
Reference #: 1HAepD

Open conversations about menstruation are at the heart of a Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa initiative to motivate young women to be active throughout their teenage years and beyond.

The Flow on Effect provides a safe space for conversations.

The Flow on Effect provides a safe space for conversations.

Period cramps, dizziness, tiredness, stress about leakage, uncomfortable conversations – this silent experience of many young women affects their participation in physical activity every month and they can be embarrassed to talk about it.

The Flow on Effect is a Sport NZ initiative born out of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 leverage and legacy work to see more young women physically active.

It brings together a series of initiatives which aim to reduce stigma around female health, menstruation and physical activity for young women and girls.

The Flow on Effect provides educational resources and information to support teachers, coaches and parents, and adults who enable young people to be physically active, Sport NZ acting diversity and inclusion manager Zara Taylor says.

Body empowerment

Empowering young women by increasing their knowledge around what their bodies are doing and helping them to make informed decisions about how they participate in physical activity while they have their periods is one aim of the initiative, says Zara.

At its heart, The Flow on Effect is about amplifying open discussion about menstruation between adults and young women – listening, encouraging, adapting practice and competition to girls’ needs, and providing a safe space for conversations.

“We must make a change somewhere and I’m really hopeful that what we are doing now to increase understanding about being active while menstruating will have a positive impact in the future,” says Zara.

The research data behind the strategy is stark. It shows that from age 15, weekly participation in physical activity drops significantly amongst female rangatahi. By the age of 16, there is a 22 percent gap between the time young men spend being active compared to young women. By 17, this gender gap increases to 28 percent.

“Within the sports sector, people see the value in physical activity and sport. Our starting point with this journey is that with support and education people won’t shy away from the conversation about menstruation and female health because they are motivated and interested in making a difference in young people’s lives,” says Zara.

“We are trying to break down barriers through starting a conversation and by providing resources and tools so young women can better understand their bodies, stay healthy and be able to be active right through their cycle,” she says.

Comfortably stepping into physical activity and sporting passions with confidence.

Comfortably stepping into physical activity and sporting passions with confidence.

Removing barriers

Celia Kavanagh wants to help make sure that the action and messages promoted by The Flow on Effect initiative happen at a grassroots level in schools and sports clubs.

She’s putting The Flow on Effect into practice at Pukekohe Football Club, where her 13-year-old daughter plays, by sponsoring the provision of three pairs of reusable period underwear from Kiwi company AWWA to the two under-14 girls’ teams alongside their kit.

“I want these girls to start their journey into womanhood on a positive footing and to remove any stigma or shame they might experience,” says Celia.

“Parents and sports clubs have a role to play in removing barriers to keeping girls active and playing sport. Girls shouldn’t feel that they can’t do things because they have a period when there are new and different products available to support this,” she says.

“Equally, if players do have cramps, or other symptoms that affect their ability to train, we’d like to give them the confidence to let their coach know and let their teammates know. So that in 2024 we at least say, ‘Hey, OK, then why don’t you instead of doing some really intensive sprints, work over here on some technical ball skills’.”

The football club has been very supportive of the initiative as part of its vision to give everyone a sense of belonging and feeling welcome, says Celia.

“For many girls, playing football with their friends is a highlight of their week and we want to create the conditions to keep it that way from age 5 years through to 18 years and beyond.”

Tikanga around ikura

Pukekohe High School student Fern, loves a variety of sports and is a Counties Manukau representative in basketball.

Fern, a Pukekohe High School student.

Fern, a Pukekohe High School student.

When she was rowing, as the only Māori in her crew she had a challenging conversation with her coach about how tikanga in her whānau meant she couldn’t be on the water when she was menstruating.

The positive response of that coach has enabled her to be an advocate for The Flow on Effect and she’s confidently speaking publicly about menstruation and her experience.

“In my whānau, having your ikura (period) is a spiritual time connecting to Papatūānuku. It’s natural and a sign of being ready to create a whole new life inside of me. It’s never ever been a thing that I’ve had to be embarrassed about,” Fern says.

“When you’re young having your ikura is really impactful especially during our sports, during a physical time where your body hurts, your body aches, because you’re literally leaking blood. And I think I have a different mentality as well; I go into a different headspace.”

She questions why talking about periods makes people feel awkward, as it’s natural and shouldn’t be embarrassing.

The Ikura | Manaakitia te whare tangata – Period products in school initiative that provides free period products to young people in all state and state integrated schools is also a talking point.

One suggestion Fern has for all schools is to make the products easily accessible for girls, even in primary schools, as she got her first period when she was nine. Don’t inadvertently put up a barrier such as a male teacher managing the product supply, she recommends. There is enough product available through the government-funded initiative for young people to take products home with them during school term and school holidays to cover their full menstrual cycle and the Ministry of Education has developed a guide with ideas on how schools can make products accessible.

To her, school is an environment for young people to find themselves, to find their confidence and to grow as a person. So kura need to provide a supportive environment where open conversation about menstruation is fostered so girls and adults are comfortable, says Fern.

The Ikura initiative has developed a range of resources to support young people to better understand periods and reduce the stigma that sometimes surrounds it, as well as to support whānau when having conversations with young people about ikura.

Hine O Te Kura Youth Symposium for students and teachers in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, June 2023.

Hine O Te Kura Youth Symposium for students and teachers in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, June 2023.

Taking action to enhance wellbeing

For Year 12 health students at Christchurch Girls’ High School Te Kura o Hine Waiora, their NCEA standard on taking action to enhance wellbeing within the school or wider community in 2023 focused on better distribution of the free period products available.

The girls’ campaign to help eliminate some of the stigma around menstruation meshed with The Flow on Effect initiative and got the girls openly talking about periods, says head of health Nicola Richards.

Their project utilised products available through the Ikura initiative to provide a package of three months’ supply of period products for each of the 1,250 students.

Students are keen to reduce stigma around female health, menstruation and physical activity.

Students are keen to reduce stigma around female health, menstruation and physical activity.

More information

The Flow on Effect – Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa(external link)

Ikura Manaakitia te whare tangata: Period products in schools information for schools and kura(external link)

Education Gazette content on the topic of ikura

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:22 am, 25 January 2024

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts