Unclean water, inadequate sanitation, and lack of menstrual hygiene products are only a few of the challenges that women and girls living in developing countries around the world face every day. Health resources in many developing countries are limited, and women grapple with the social stigma regarding menstruation. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this reality by worsening the state of the period poverty, water, and sanitation crisis.
Period poverty encompasses multiple aspects, such as a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and waste management . To properly manage their menstrual periods, women need more than access to hygiene products; they also require access to clean water and private, safe toilets. Period poverty is closely related to water, sanitation, and hygiene issues, referred to as WASH. Three billion people — almost half of the global population — do not have access to hand washing facilities with soap, which are vital for maintaining proper menstrual hygiene. Additionally, almost 700 million people globally still practice open defecation . For women who lack access to proper waste management facilities, having a private place to take care of their menstrual hygiene is a distant dream.
In addition to the lack of public hygiene infrastructure, there is a fundamental lack of affordable absorbent products women need during their periods. Instead, many women resort to using unclean products such as newspapers, socks, or leaves. These factors – unclean water, little to no sanitation, and unavailable clean hygiene products – cause both emotional distress and increased risk of bacterial infections, which can lead to more severe health issues later in life. Pregnant women face additional risks, as they are more susceptible to developing UTIs and other infections. Proper perineal hygiene requires what many consider simple things such as drinking clean water, urinating frequently, and showering daily – however these things are difficult to accomplish each day when the infrastructure and resources do not allow for it .
Worsening the effects of period poverty, many countries around the world continue to perpetuate the stigma associated with menstruation. This stigma varies widely in severity and impact, though it is common for girls and women on their periods to be excluded from daily activities, such as attending religious services, sleeping in their own beds, or socializing with male relatives and friends. Within certain cultures, women are forced to bathe frequently and wash all objects with which they come into contact, as it is believed that women on their periods are unclean. This has forced women and girls out of their homes and into menstrual huts — small, poorly constructed dwellings often exposed to the elements, excluded from their families until their menstrual period has ended. The practice of banishing women from their homes and forcing them into huts or sheds separate from the home during menstruation, chhaupadi, is somewhat common in Nepal. Several women die each year from reasons related to living in the hut such as snake bites, physical assault, and inclement weather . This debilitating social stigma combined with the lack of vital resources is pushing girls and women out of schools and workplaces during their periods, causing stress and worsening gender inequality within these spaces.
Nigeria serves as an example of COVID-19’s detrimental impact on period poverty. Nigeria is home to deeply rooted menstrual taboos. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls in Nigeria have faced increasing struggles in dealing with their menstrual periods in a safe and dignified manner. In many Nigerian households, the pandemic has caused unemployment; combined with significant recent economic inflation, worsening financial conditions have made proper menstrual care even more difficult. Nigerian women and girls have no choice but to spend the little money they have on food and other necessities, rather than purchasing the more expensive and hard-to-find menstrual products. As a result, more women now suffer from the effects of period poverty, left with nowhere to turn to deal with their menstrual periods in a dignified manner .
Additionally, COVID-19 has caused a negative impact on WASH infrastructure in developing countries which thus negatively impacts the menstrual health of women in those countries. Water sources have dwindled due to a reliance on a complex system of obtaining water that requires the delivery of tankers or packaged water. Women and girls in rural areas who do not have access to a 24/7 water supply are thus reliant on services to provide them with water, services which were suspended or not available during the height of the pandemic . “In most parts of our world, people struggle to get regular clean drinking water, let alone getting water to wash their hands” an individual in Ghana said. He continued to share that he hadn’t “received water supply from Ghana Water for the past two days” . This is just one example of a struggle to obtain water in rural areas without developed water infrastructure. This is not an isolated incident as this has been occurring in many other countries worldwide where women are not able to access the WASH infrastructure they need, especially during their periods.
Women have a fundamental right to health. They have the right to accessible, clean water and sanitation facilities. They have the right to education regarding menstrual hygiene and women’s health issues. They have the right to clean absorbent sanitary products of their choice. They have the right to equality and dignity .
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