Period poverty in the time of a pandemicFor the past five months, sanitary napkins have not reached many remote villages, forcing girls to go back to using unhygienic methods.
On the day the government announced the nationwide lockdown in March, Sneha was on the first day of her period. Fearing she would have no access to sanitary napkins during the lockdown, she rushed to a nearby shop to buy a pack of sanitary pads. While in the shop, she noticed that the shelves for menstrual products were almost empty.
“I knew then the pandemic would cause a shortage of sanitary pads in our village in no time,” said the 16-year-old from Bajhang, whose village has only one pharmacy.
And her concern came true. Ever since the lockdown was clamped on March 24, most of the shops in Dhamilekh, Sneha’s village, have remained shut—even after the lockdown was lifted for a few weeks. Those shops that opened, meanwhile, had run out of menstrual products. “We have been deprived of sanitary pads throughout the lockdown since the shops are unable to restock because transportation facilities were closed,” said Sneha, who asked to be identified by her first name only.
According to Sneha, the unavailability of sanitary napkins has forced her to go back to using pieces of cloth, which she describes as “uncomfortable.”
It is no secret that Nepali women face many challenges during their periods, especially in rural areas, where there is a severe lack of menstrual hygiene awareness. Sanitary napkins are brought in limited numbers and they come quite expensive. As a result, many women are forced to use unhygienic means—including rags, old pieces of clothes, even leaves—during their monthly cycle, increasing their risk of contracting reproductive tract infections and more severe diseases like cervical cancer. A 2016 report on menstrual health and hygiene management in Nepal found that a staggering 83 percent of menstruating girls still use cloth while only 15 percent use sanitary pads.
And now, as many parts of the country continues to be forced into another lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, gender rights activists are concerned that this has led to a rise in period poverty—a phenomenon already existing in rural Nepal where women are deprived of basic menstrual health facilities, such as access to safe sanitary products, toilets and menstrual health education.
“Periods don’t stop for a pandemic,” said Ashwin Karki, an activist for dignified menstruation and coordinator of Amnesty International Nepal’s Barahi Youth Network. “Yet not much has been spoken about how the pandemic has forced girls and women to compromise with their menstrual hygiene in the absence of sanitary products, despite the fact these products are extremely essential like food, water and shelter.”
According to a recent survey of 61 health professionals from 24 countries, including Nepal, which was conducted by Plan International UK, a non-profit working for children’s rights and gender equality, 43 percent stated that women are facing restricted access to products through shortages or disrupted supply chains because of the pandemic.
Another study conducted in four districts of rural Nepal—Surkhet, Parsa, Dhading and Lamjung—by Voluntary Service Overseas Nepal (VSO Nepal), a nonprofit that tackles poverty in developing countries, found that out of 114 mentors who participated in the survey, 77 percent informed that due to lack of accessibility and affordability of sanitary pads, a majority of young school-going girls have started using cloths and homemade pads instead. A VSO Nepal mentor, in collaboration with schools in remote areas in Nepal, has been providing tutoring classes, life skill training and menstrual and reproductive health information to young girls
According to Muni Kumari Gupta, one of the mentors who participated in the survey, along with movement restriction, which has ceased delivery of menstrual hygiene products to remote areas, the closure of school has also affected the supply of pads, since many girls used to rely on the free pads given to them by schools.
“In the past few years, many public schools in Parsa district, with the help of the local government and civil society, were able to provide pads for free to girls. As a result, even those, who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy one, were able to use them. But now, with the schools shut, the supply of pads too has stopped,” said Gupta.
In an effort to provide a solution to this problem, under VSO Nepal’s Sisters for Sisters mentorship programme, Gupta has been assigned to not only mentor girls with their studies but also teach them how to make reusable, hygienic sanitary napkins.
“Girls, after learning how to make the napkins, have been informing me that the reusable sanitary napkins are comfortable and cost-effective. Not only that, they are also teaching their family members and neighbours to make their own homemade pads,” said Gupta.
As Covid-19 cases continue to rise in Parsa, the authorities have re-imposed another lockdown.
Gupta has been mentoring girls via the phone these days.
For 15-year-old Anjali Patel, learning how to make homemade sanitary pads has helped her and her mother overcome the shortage of pad during the pandemic.
“Due to the financial constraint of Covid-19, my family wasn't able to buy me sanitary pads. Now that I know how to make my own homemade pads, I feel relief and less anxious when it comes to managing my periods,” said Patel.
While organisations such as VSO Nepal are helping girls manage their menstrual hygiene with dignity, there have been various reports on the inadequacies of the quarantine and isolation facilities across the country, raising questions about whether these facilities are women-friendly or not.
S., who is in a quarantine facility in Janasewa Hospital in Bardibas, said that the facility doesn’t even provide soap, let alone sanitary pads. “There aren't any menstrual hygiene supplies available. If we get our period inside the isolation facility, we have been told that we should ask our family members to bring pads for us,” said S., who did not wish to be identified.
Surendra Chaudhary, the person in charge of the quarantine and isolation facilities at Janasewa Hospital, admitted that except for food, they are unable to provide other necessities, including menstrual hygiene supplies. “There are around five females in our quarantine facilities and if they need anything, they can either ask the guards to buy it for them or ask their family members,” said Chaudhary.
Such a situation is worrying campaigners and women health experts, as they believe pads are essential for women. Despite its importance, it has become the lowest priority item for the government during the pandemic. Many fear that years of steady gains to improve access to sanitary products and fight against taboos surrounding menstruation, which was achieved through countless numbers of awareness programmes and initiatives from government and civil society, could be rolled back in the absence of a proper channel to reach out to people during the pandemic.
“Everyone should understand that for the period poverty and taboo to be eradicated altogether, there should be non-stop efforts to prioritise menstrual hygiene by continuously providing clean water, sanitary pads, and comprehensive education,” said Bhawana Bogati, community health programme associate at Possible Heath in Achham. “However, now, due to the pandemic, we are unable to reach out to the community to provide sanitation facilities and it is disheartening.”
Back in Bajhang, all Sneha wants for now is for her school to reopen. “I wish the school would reopen soon so I could have access to pads,” said Sneha.