Use + Remix

Battling menstrual taboos in a pandemic

Girls found it even harder to manage menstruation during the COVID-19 pandemic. : Marni Sommer, Sustainable Sanitation Alliance Girls found it even harder to manage menstruation during the COVID-19 pandemic. : Marni Sommer, Sustainable Sanitation Alliance

By Heli Askola and Megan Adams, Monash University. 

Pandemic-related disruptions across Asia-Pacific had devastating consequences for people who menstruate.

School closures made it harder to access vital information, and those who had the necessary information found it harder to find period products due to supply chain issues. Where products were in stock, they were often more expensive – a meaningful problem for those who faced deeper economic hardship during the pandemic.

Lockdowns forced many households to send only one person out for essential items, in many parts of the world this was left to men.

Women and girls, already dealing with less privacy in their homes, were left with fewer facilities for washing and cleaning, and more stigma around periods in general.

Period poverty, the inability to access necessary sanitary products such as pads and tampons, has been a long-standing issue for the entire Asia-Pacific region. In wake of the pandemic, and policy responses to it, period stigma and poverty has worsened.

The economic impact of lockdowns, border closures and disrupted supply chains all limited women’s and girls’ access to period products, according to Plan International Australia, a charity focused on girls’ equality.

More than half (51 percent) of the Australian girls and young non-binary people Plan surveyed said products had been harder to find and purchase, while a fifth (20 percent) reported the cost of period products had risen since the pandemic started. Around one in three girls and women surveyed in the Pacific said period products had become harder to find during the pandemic.

Necessary facilities for washing and cleaning, and critical information about menstruation, became less accessible. Stigmatisation became more profound. More than a quarter (26 percent) of Australian young people said COVID-19 had made it hard to find facilities to change and privately dispose of period products safely and hygienically – in the Pacific, this figure rose to 40 percent.

For many adolescent girls, the disruptions to schooling brought about by the pandemic, severed the immediate connections they had with their teachers, schools, friends, health workers and family networks. For girls in lockdown, this generally led to less access to important information about first periods and menstrual hygiene management — particularly in areas where young people have limited to no access to online resources.

More than half (54 percent) of global  water, sanitation and hygiene professionals Plan surveyed said COVID-19 led to  disruptions of information and education about menstrual hygiene management. In the Pacific, around one in five girls and women surveyed said they felt more embarrassed about their periods during the pandemic. Some of the Australian survey participants also said the pandemic had led to them delaying or avoiding seeing a General Practitioner, due to fear of either contracting coronavirus or taking up resources for those who had contracted the virus.

A continued decline

For many women and girls, these challenges became even more difficult in 2021 as the pandemic continued, even intensifying in some nations. In a severely impacted country like  Indonesia, school closures left girls with no options for home-based learning isolated. This worsened period stigma, shame and privacy concerns during menstruation in big households. These problems are worse in remote communities.

The fight to access information on periods became even harder for girls in Indonesia in 2021. This was the biggest challenge of the pandemic’s second wave: 64 percent of experts surveyed said girls had less access to accurate and comprehensive menstrual hygiene information. Access to products was also an issue — Indonesia particularly felt the global supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.

These problems were exacerbated by an ongoing lack of privacy for those managing their periods. Almost half (45 percent) of girls and gender diverse people who menstruate were facing decreased privacy when managing their periods: struggling to change menstrual products, clean themselves hygienically and dispose of menstrual products after use.

In some countries, this lack of privacy has also led to period stigma and myths being amplified, with many girls and gender diverse people who menstruate feeling they had to hide signs of menstruation from family.

Being unable to access sanitary products has negatively affected girls’ health, lives and their education. A lack of access to period products is compounded by menstrual stigma, shame and secrecy which makes it hard to speak of menstrual management and hygiene.

Finding solutions

Governments are slowly starting to recognise the importance of period poverty and menstrual stigma. A pilot project in Indonesia provided 1,000 pairs of reusable underwear to Indonesian girls (approximately three pairs each), alongside menstrual health education. After the three-month pilot, almost all of the participants (99 percent) said they would continue to use the product.

In Australia, state governments have commenced the rollout of free sanitary products in schools. Such initiatives could make a real difference to period poverty What is still often absent from policymaking is the perspective of girls and people who menstruate. Menstrual taboos are persistent, calling for ongoing education and investment in government health responses.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™. 

Dr Heli Askola is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Monash University and an associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

Dr Megan Adams is a Senior Lecturer and Graduate Research Lead in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. 

Special advice from Claire Knox, and the policy and WASH teams from Plan International Australia, the charity for girls’ equality.

The authors declared no conflict of interest in relation to this article.

Authors
Heli Askola and Megan Adams, Monash University. 
Editor
Reece Hooker, 360info
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