SEATTLE, Washington — Defined as a “lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets or waste management,” the effects of period poverty are being exacerbated by COVID-19. Due to product shortages or interrupted chains of supply, the difficulty in accessing sanitary products has increased during the pandemic, as has access to hygienic facilities. On top of both of these issues, the price of period products has risen during the lockdown period, making period poverty during COVID-19 a major concern.
The dangers of period poverty are much more threatening than it appears at first glance. When individuals who menstruate lack menstrual education or sanitary products, they are unable to properly and hygienically manage their menstrual cycles. This leads to potentially dangerous habits like reusing sanitary products that should not be reused, or not using any at all. This situation can pose very serious health concerns to those who menstruate, potentially creating another health crisis on top of COVID-19.
There are five key ways in which COVID-19 has made period poverty a much more difficult issue to conquer.
1. Product Shortages
Since the pandemic began, the number one issue affecting period poverty is reported to be product shortages. This is primarily due to the fact that global supply chains of sanitary products have been disrupted and many have ceased trading. This has especially become a problem in remote areas, making places where it is already challenging to find period products, even more difficult. As it stands today, menstrual supplies are often not seen as essential. This means that supply chains are not necessarily compelled to produce them, nor do they feel obligated to do so. The misperception that period products are not essential during COVID-19, has resulted in them being overlooked and has created a severe shortage of period products in areas that desperately need them.
2. Price Inflation
Like most companies facing the economic crisis during COVID-19, companies producing period products have inflated prices of products. Supply chains have been disrupted and the initial shock of the pandemic led many consumers to stockpile essential items, including sanitary products. Companies inflated product prices because the demand rose significantly and because of the struggling global economy. This has made accessing products even more difficult, as people are struggling financially during COVID-19 due to job losses and the inability to work.
3. Access to Critical Healthcare Resources
Because COVID-19 is a health crisis, many critical healthcare resources have been diverted to combatting the pandemic. All water, sanitation and hygiene services are now centered around COVID-19, leaving those in period poverty struggling to handle their periods with dignity and with safety. Communities who were given soap, cleaning materials and other important tools to fight COVID-19, were not provided with enough of the same resources to properly manage menstruation as well.
4. Education and Information
A vital factor in combatting period poverty is providing education and information on menstrual cycles. Education is of paramount importance, as having access to period products means nothing if women do not understand how to use them. Unfortunately, the lockdown period caused by COVID-19 has blocked the flow of information about menstrual health. This lack of information has become particularly challenging in communities that hold dangerous menstruation traditions. Some of these traditions can involve a “menstrual hut,” or sending menstruating women to a relatives home, which would affect the ability to social distance. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, these traditions left individuals exposed and vulnerable. Now, these traditions leave many that much more vulnerable and often unable to engage in necessary social distancing.
5. Stigma and Shame
The economic pressure of the pandemic has worsened not only the accessibility of period products but also the stigma surrounding it. COVID-19 has forced many to push the issue of period poverty to the side, allowing societies to revert to practices of shaming and making it more mentally and emotionally challenging for individuals who menstruate to seek out the proper products and healthcare. A major issue in period poverty is providing a sense of dignity to those who menstruate. In a time of isolation and lockdown, the stigma that has been fought against for so long is bubbling back up to the surface. Menstruating women have no alternative to using unsafe products and are confined to their homes with no real privacy to manage their periods.
Organizations Addressing Period Poverty During COVID-19
UNICEF, UNFPA and partners are addressing period poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes providing hygiene kits and sanitary products to women, including women in facilities often overlooked, like detention centers and correctional institutions. Part of UNICEF’s work prioritizes dispelling myths and providing the correct information about menstrual health and COVID-19. UNFPA has released a variety of educational videos, such as videos that help parents relay menstrual information and videos that teach people how to make their own reusable menstrual products. Additionally, UNICEF’s Oky period tracker app provides girls with child-friendly menstruation content, a cycle tracking function and COVID-19 information.
The World Bank has also continued to address period poverty during COVID-19, by providing water and sanitation facilities as well as educational programs in countries like Tajikistan, Mozambique, Eswatini, the Solomon Islands and Tanzania.
Plan international visited the largest informal settlement in Kenya, Kibera, to distribute 2,700 sanitary towels. The organization is also looking to work with bathroom owners in informal settlements in Nairobi, to enable adolescent girls to use the shower facilities to manage hygiene during menstruation.
As said by the World Bank, “Periods don’t stop for pandemics. Being able to manage menstruation safely, hygienically and with dignity, is critical not just for female health and education but also for economic development and overall gender equality.” The organizations addressing period poverty during COVID-19 are ultimately addressing larger global issues too.
– Olivia Fish