TACOMA, Washington — Period poverty in Nepal is widespread and complex. According to a 2016 report examining menstrual hygiene and health in Nepal, a mere 15% of menstruating girls used sanitary pads. Meanwhile, 83% of girls were found to be using fabric and other non-hygienic menstrual management practices. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially exacerbated period poverty in Nepal.
While absent or limited access to menstrual products are major issue, so too is the intense stigma surrounding periods in Nepal. Shame and fear resulting from menstruation taboos make it nearly impossible for girls to maintain dignity during their periods. Although it was outlawed in 2005, Chhaupadi is still practiced in some parts of rural Nepal, whereby women are exiled to isolated huts for the duration of menstruation. This banishment is done out of fear that menstruating girls bring about bad luck or ill will. The pandemic has exacerbated these stigmas as many households fear that menstruating girls may increase their chance of getting the virus. In some areas, communal objects have been labeled as forbidden to touch for menstruating girls.
Furthermore, Nepal underwent a strict four-month lockdown resulting in the stockpiling of period products. Moreover, widespread pandemic-motivated school closures have eliminated many girls’ source of menstrual products as schools often supply free pads and other menstrual hygiene products.
Sisters for Sisters’: Helping Women Manage Menstruation during a Pandemic
Voluntary Service Overseas’ Sisters for Sisters’ Education project has been instrumental in helping girls manage their periods. Sisters for Sisters’ pairs young girls with ‘Big Sisters,’ older girls serving as mentors, providing essential health, educational and emotional support. Recognizing the importance of supporting vulnerable girls, Sisters for Sisters’ strives to help girls succeed in school, provide positive female role models via Big Sisters, change community attitudes surrounding girls’ education and share invaluable information about reproductive and sexual health. In particular, Big Sisters have taken an active role in teaching girls how to make hygienic, cost-effective and reusable sanitary napkins.
Prior to the pandemic, approximately 2,000 young women and girls received training from Sisters for Sisters’ to make their own reusable pads. Although disposable pads are cheaper upfront, these reusable pads last up to five years and make more sense in rural communities with limited access to disposable pads.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, VSO has distributed 3,000 hygiene kits to women and girls. These kits include soap, a toothbrush, a towel, nail clippers, clean underwear, a reusable sanitary pad and liquid chlorine in an effort “to help girls manage their periods safely and with dignity,” said Sushil Khanal, Project Manager of Sisters for Sisters’ Education in Nepal, in an interview with The Borgen Project.
Although Big Sisters have resorted to largely remote mentoring, mentors have emphasized menstrual hygiene management. Additionally, because of the widespread school closures, Sisters for Sisters’ has implemented a radio program called Sajilo Sikai. This created a new education platform in an effort to keep students learning even while out of school. Moreover, Khanal noted that “a separate session on sexual and reproductive health and menstruation hygiene awareness [has complemented]bulk SMS on menstruation hygiene management and sexual and reproductive health” to all those in the program.
Sisters for Sisters’ has also implemented a door-to-door campaign for COVID-19 awareness, led by local community mobilizers, volunteers and local teachers. Khanal explained that they are expanding the program’s reach by mobilizing “Female Community Health Volunteers to provide menstruation hygiene management and sexual and reproductive health information to girls and their parents.”
Khanal adds that as COVID-19’s impacts continue to be felt in the coming months, it will be imperative to address the intensified stigma surrounding “untouchability” while menstruating. Other areas that must receive further attention include:
Increased awareness of sustainable menstrual products
Policy dialogue on period poverty in Nepal
More widespread dissemination of reusable sanitary pads and menstrual cycle beads
Proper waste management systems in school, particularly for commercial sanitary pads
Expanded mentoring on menstrual hygiene management and sexual and reproductive health to marginalized girls
Menstruation does not cease during a pandemic. Managing a period with dignity and ease should not be a luxury. It is thanks to groups like Sisters for Sisters’ that women and girls have been given access to clean and sanitary menstrual products amidst COVID-19.
Moving forward, non-stop efforts are required to eliminate the renewed stigma around menstruation and to continue making menstrual products more widely available. With the support of VSO’s Sisters for Sisters’ Education and other action groups, a future without period poverty in Nepal is possible.
– Samantha Friborg
Photo: Sisters for Sisters