SEATTLE, Washington — There’s a saying going around the world of women’s health: “Periods don’t stop for pandemics.” Women across the world are using these words as a call to awareness and action. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in people not only hoarding pasta and toilet paper — they bought up all the menstrual products. This, coupled with widespread disruptions in supply chains and mass production around the world, is denying access to feminine products during COVID-19 for millions of impoverished women and girls.
What Is Period Poverty?
Tampons are not a luxury in higher-income, developed countries — but for millions of the world’s women, they are.
“Period poverty” is a major issue in developing countries around the world. The American Medical Women’s Association (AWMA) defines the issue as “the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management.” In Africa, one in 10 girls misses school due to a lack of access to safe hygiene products and individual bathrooms at school. In India, 54% of girls do not have access to private and functional toilets in school. However, 52% of women are of reproductive age, making this an obstacle affecting women everywhere.
The stigma surrounding menstruation also worsens the situation. Women and girls feel embarrassed and scared of their periods, especially when they lack access to a secluded bathroom. In addition, 132 million girls in the world are no longer in education. The lack of educational equality deteriorates in developing countries and as females grow older. Thus, the lack of education programs furthers the misunderstanding about women’s health.
How Coronavirus Worsens Period Poverty
The Coronavirus pandemic arguably catalyzed a more formidable period problem in developing nations. Rich countries get priority when distributing feminine hygiene products. Schools that previously provided products for young women are now closed. Women’s help centers, homeless shelters and refugee camps are vastly overwhelmed with declining supply and higher demand.
Uprooted economic systems across the globe also negatively affect access to feminine products during COVID-19. Multiple countries increased prices on sanitary pads and tampons due to the sharp decrease in trade and tourism. For example, in Fiji, where the minimum wage is $2.32 and, as of 2013, 28.1% of the population lived in poverty, hygiene product prices increased from FJ$0.50 to FJ$3, making them unaffordable to many women.
India is also struggling through a “sanitary pad crisis” since the coronavirus shut down economies and factories in late March. Estimates presume only 15% of people menstruating in India have access to feminine products during COVID-19. While the country is feeling the same economic effects as Fiji, the problem in India can be traced back to one thing — schools closing.
In India, millions of girls rely on school-sanctioned menstrual health programs that distribute free disposable sanitary pads every month. This is extremely valuable in a country where 23 million girls quit school every year because they started their periods. Furthermore, 64% of women in India use unsanitary cloth, old rags, T-shirts or other harmful methods to manage menstruation.
However, schools can no longer provide this service while closed, leaving extremely limited options for women. India has limited transportation services, cutting off access to faraway stores that carry tampons. People also highly stigmatize periods in India. This means women who have to stay at home or quarantine are uncomfortable asking fathers, brothers or husbands to buy feminine hygiene products.
Who Is Supplying Menstrual Products to Developing Countries?
However, many organizations and activist groups are helping to distribute sanitary feminine products during COVID-19 to women in need. In India specifically, groups like Womenite, The Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) and the Menstrual Health Alliance of India are actively working to raise awareness on the issue and donate sanitary pads to communities around the country. Other organizations like Safa India are producing reusable cloth pads and teaching women how to sew them as well.
ActionAid, a self-described “international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty,” has also completed valuable work since the onset of the pandemic. The organization is currently making hygiene access and education in the pandemic a priority in over 40 countries. Notably, its volunteers supplied more than 170,000 people in Afghanistan with “emergency food aid, hygiene kits and projects promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment.” The World Bank has also vaguely cited commitment to providing menstrual health initiatives during the pandemic, stating, “partnerships are on the rise with the private sector or charitable organizations” to provide important hygiene products.
Many people who menstruate are worried about where they will get feminine products during COVID-19. However, people everywhere are helping in times of need.
– Grace Ganz