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OP-ED: Period poverty amid the pandemic

  • Published at 03:34 am April 16th, 2021
period menstruation sanitary pad
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Covid-19 makes it more important than ever to break the silence surrounding menstrual health

Period poverty is essentially a new term in Bangladesh, though it has persisted from our country’s very inception. The word period itself is taboo to the majority and is considered a topic reserved for women, or not discussed with due priority. The conservative social setting teaches women to not prioritize their health over patriarchal social norms. 

In our patriarchal society, most girls and women are forced to rinse the rags by the latrine without soap or wash them thoroughly outside, making sure no male members are seen while cleaning. After cleaning, they look for a hidden area to dry the rags, and often the secret place does not get enough sunlight or air for the rags to dry properly.

As a result, the girls are forced to reuse the damp cloth while they are menstruating. In many cases, girls suffer from urinary infections because of wet clothes and lack of proper hygiene.

In rural areas of Bangladesh, period poverty is more profound than we can imagine. As girls shy away from buying sanitary pads because of expense and social taboo, it forces them to skip school. Most schools do not provide designated areas for girls to change or dispose of the sanitary napkins during their cycle.

Schools do not assist them with much-needed hygienic products that are required, which demotivates young girls from attending school. By the time they reach adulthood, most girls are seen to have dropped out of school, and they are forced to get married without completing their studies.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, period poverty has been getting even more distressing for poorer women. The devastating effects of the covid pandemic have been barring women from participating in any form of economic activity. As a result, they have had to be dependent on their male counterparts for their sanitary necessities. 

A recent study by WaterAid Bangladesh revealed the far-reaching effects of the lockdown on menstrual health management among lower-income groups. The study showed how women from lower economic classes had to choose between buying sanitary products and buying food items.

Most poorer women in urban settings work as house help, garment workers, or cleaners. Due to the pandemic, women who work as house help cannot get into the secured buildings in the more affluent communities. Garments workers are forced to choose between spending money on house rent and food instead of sanitary products.

Women who had savings from previous incomes have been compelled to give their fathers or husbands the money to keep the house running, as many men also lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The study showed a sharp decline in menstrual hygiene product sales, including sanitary napkins, painkillers for menstrual cramping, injections, etc in urban slums and other low-income areas. It also revealed that the male members of the household often resort to violence if they are asked to buy sanitary napkins for their wives or daughters. 

In our country, menstrual health is not given the priority it needs from the government. Since sanitary pads are seen as luxury items but not essential products, women have to pay more, which is often termed as the “pink tax.”

Moreover, social norms and taboos prevent women from being vocal about their menstrual health. The stigma around women’s reproductive health only puts them at greater risk of falling victim to poor health and suffering from arduous health conditions silently.

Considering the situation, the government needs to remove value added tax from sanitary napkins, and immediate awareness programs in urban slums and rural villages need to be organized.

It is about time we stop period poverty among our girls and women and let them create a future where they can work and contribute to society without any limitation.

Sayeda Karim is a student of international development practice, and an independent researcher working on environment, climate change, and gender.

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