While the coronavirus pandemic has placed many of life’s activities on pause, menstrual cycles stop for no one. This means that amidst a nationwide lockdown that closed-down shops and factories, the demand for menstrual hygiene products continued to exist. This has become an issue in other countries as well. Susanne Legena, Chief Executive of Plan International Australia states that “periods don’t stop during a pandemic, but managing them has become a whole lot harder”.
Even under normal circumstances, many Pakistani women and girls are unable to access hygienic menstrual products, such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups. Around 28 million women in Pakistan lack access to menstrual health products. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken away livelihoods and exacerbated household poverty, women from lower and middle income households may struggle even more in terms of access to safe menstrual products. Consequently, many find themselves using rags, damp cloth or cotton wool.
Unfortunately, for many, the struggle may have only begun – if families have to continue to make tough choices between putting food on the table and buying menstrual products, the former is likely to be a priority. Women in lower income countries and communities across the world have reported that it has become harder to afford period products during the pandemic, as household incomes stretch thinner and menstrual products become more expensive.
According to a community worker in Karachi’s Surjani Town, it was easier for families to obtain food rations than it was to access menstrual products. “We have somehow been able to arrange for food rations, but for sanitation, women have to resort to the use of unhygienic items”, she said. During our research, we found these concerns were echoed by many menstruating women and girls. Ration distribution drives that included menstrual products donated by HER Pakistan were, therefore, viewed as a blessing by women in low-income communities.
The menstrual product crisis was exacerbated by store and factory closures, which disrupted supply chains across the world. Santex Products, which manufactures Butterfly Sanitary Napkins in Pakistan, also reports disruptions to their supply chain as their suppliers in China were placed under lockdown. Once suppliers began functioning again, access to shipping lines was still limited, having an effect on the quantity of supplies they were able to procure. Production was able to resume once lockdown ended, but with the coronavirus situation worsening in Pakistan, many manufacturers are dealing with the imminent threat of another lockdown and further disruptions to productions and sales.
One innovative way Santex has managed to circumvent store closures and get their menstrual napkins to consumers is through e-commerce initiatives. However, sales have still taken a hit. As economies across the globe reel from the economic effects of lockdown, prices for raw material are increasing, driving up menstrual product prices.
The provision of menstrual health products is central to women and girl’s health and empowerment. The policy response to the pandemic must, therefore, incorporate menstrual health issues as a key focus area.
In Pakistan, however, little attention is being paid to menstrual health needs. In the current context, since immediate disease control and prevention are being viewed as key policy issues, menstrual health needs can be seen as secondary. One major problem is the exclusion of women from policy circles, which means their experiences are not accounted for. In developing countries, resources may have to be diverted from menstrual health services to more immediate public health concerns.
NGOs and civil society actors are often tasked with filling the gaps left by public policy in developing countries. In China, UNFPA distributed menstrual pads to vulnerable populations at the peak of the lockdown earlier this year.
HER Pakistan is committed to eradicating period poverty and ensuring that women and girls can menstruate with comfort even during the lockdown period in Pakistan. They have served more than 2,300 periods and will continue to serve more in the coming months.
However, while NGOs and the civil society can fill in some gaps, they cannot create policies to deal with menstrual health issues at a nation-wide scale. To fully ensure menstrual equity, the government needs to place menstrual needs on its agenda. It is vital that menstrual rights are understood as human rights and provisions are made for the future of girls and women, so they can menstruate with dignity and confidence.