By Kylie Schuyler and Crystal Sprague
According to UNICEF, an estimated 1.8 billion menstruators across the world, including girls, women, and gender non-binary persons, cannot manage their monthly cycle in a dignified, healthy way. In normal times, menstrual hygiene needs can go unmet due to the effects of poverty and gender inequality, and are compounded by the cultural taboos around the female body and period stigma that exists in many cultures and leads to a lack of access to basic services. In a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, these deprivations are exacerbated. The result, in all times, is profound negative impact on the lives of those who menstruate worldwide.
May 28th marks Menstrual Hygiene Day. There is no better time than now to shine a light on the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought greater menstrual hygiene hardship. Our organization, Global G.L.O.W., works to empower young girls to self-advocate in 23 countries. We sought the guidance of our partners on the ground to gain insight into the realities facing young girls during this difficult time.
Jamuna Shreshta of N.I.C.E. in Nepal says that menstruation is always an issue, but now, with lockdown measures in place, getting supplies and maintaining healthy practices “is much more serious since menstruation is considered impure and should not be said aloud because it is shameful.” In conjunction with this stigma, there is a scarcity of pads – but even if pads are available, people must use their limited funds for food for their families, she told us. Consequently, girls have resorted to making menstrual supplies out of clothing pieces that are washed and dried secretly in unhygienic conditions such as outdoor sheds, leaving these girls vulnerable to infections and reproductive health issues. All of this, Jamuna says, is creating profound mental stress.
“I used to get sanitary towels from my school in Kibera. Now that schools are closed, I have to use pieces of cloth, which is very uncomfortable,” says 16-year-old Nisera, a girl working with Plan International. “I feel sad as I can’t do things normally, like household chores or sit down as I am afraid of soiling my clothes.”
In both moments of crisis and normal times, the consequences of period poverty and menstrual stigma have profound impacts on the ability of girls to exert freedom and participate in work and community life in a safe way. According to the World Bank, girls worldwide may miss 10-20% of school days per year due to lack of menstrual supplies, inadequate sanitation and toilets, period pain and stigma. Many girls, having fallen so behind for these reasons, drop out of school altogether. In addition to this massive loss of human potential, girls who have dropped out of school are also more likely to be trafficked, forced into child marriage or have early pregnancies. Tragically, as school reopens post-COVID-19, resources and access to menstrual supplies will likely remain scarce, hindering many girls from returning to complete their educations.
“In class one day I began my menstruation. Fear poured over me. I began to have a negative attitude towards myself.”
Global G.L.O.W. focus group, Kenya, 2018
Womens’ and girls’ health, safety and well-being will also be put at risk due to the lack of or cost of menstrual supplies. As we know through our partners at the Milele Center in Kenya, many girls desperate for a solution and misinformed about the consequences may engage in transactional sex with men in trade for money to buy pads – simply to stave off the shame of not having them, and so that they can attend school.
Menstrual hygiene and access to resources must be prioritized and provided for girls, even in the midst of economic hardship. To combat the pervasive stigma surrounding menstruation and to develop healthy practices, it is critical that we speak out about this problem and continue to educate girls throughout this pandemic on how they can obtain support during their periods. We must afford girls a chance to learn about their sexual and reproductive health, further avoid stigma, and lead healthy, empowered lives.
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