Periods Don’t Stop During Pandemics

COVID-19, which led to panic buying globally, left supermarkets devoid of products necessary for basic needs like eating, using the toilet, and sleeping. For women, menstrual management, though often overlooked and stigmatized, is a basic need. Silently, periods continue during pandemics. Millions struggle to manage their menstruation in a healthy and dignified way. Many lack access to basic menstrual products, water and toilets.

Period Taboos Don’t Stop During Pandemics Either

I’m experiencing period pain, but have to take care of three patients who need my help.”

Women account for almost 70% of healthcare professionals, and are the main carers of children, elderly, and sick. Yet, their periods are forgotten, hidden and dismissed. Blogger Audrey Jiajia Li exposed the problem of female Chinese healthcare workers who, dressed in their protective gears, were unable to change their menstrual products or take a day off for the pain. 

Women sustain the social and healthcare workforce. Yet, their menstrual needs are unaccounted for in service planning and delivery. Period products are not considered necessities by many in leadership positions -mostly men – which has a direct impact on women’s lives and on the pursuit of gender equity. Thus, the first step for good health and effective gender equality is acknowledging and addressing the needs and issues around menstruation.

There is no health without sexual and reproductive health, and there is no sexual and reproductive health without menstrual health

Period products during pandemics

Period Poverty Continues

“If we need to wear masks, they should be given for free.” 

On social media, I read these attention-grabbing words. I think about the millions of women who cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. 

Among poor and marginalized communities, 1 in 10 people struggle to afford these products. This is becoming an increasing issue worldwide with more people burdened financially from COVID-19 related layoffs.

Unfortunately, the most affected women and girls are the poorest. When faced with choosing between food and pads, food is the obvious choice. However, inaccessibility to menstrual hygiene products impact females’ health and everyday lives.

“If we need to wash our hands, we need access to clean water and toilets.”
WASH and COVID-19

Although access to sanitary products is essential, other obstacles to safe menstrual management exist. This includes access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrates inequalities between people. Health authorities are clear – washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds kills the virus. While this gesture seems simple, for the 3 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to running water and who lack hand-washing facilities at home or in school, it may not be.

Adequate WASH is not just essential to prevent Covid-19 infections. WASH also plays a large role in menstrual health and hygiene. Being unable to wash your sanitary materials or clean your hands may lead to vaginal infections. Being unable to change or dispose of sanitary materials from insufficient toilets at work or school may lead to women and girls choosing to stay home.

Period Activists (and Nonprofits) Keep Working 

COVID-19 and menstrual management have more things in common than one may think. They disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people and hinder women and girls reaching their full potential.

COVID-19 has brought existing inequalities to light and the fight for gender equity through good menstrual health is a dimension that shouldn’t be forgotten. Activists and organizations have been working for years to abolish period stigma, improve WASH and obtain affordable menstrual health products for all. COVID-19 and the measures to contain its spread have impacted their work.

However, period activists, NGOs and nonprofits have not stopped. In fact, they are more active now than ever. They have shown an immense ability to adapt, with DIY online workshops for reusable menstrual products, improved distribution of supplies for the most vulnerable communities, and groundbreaking awareness and advocacy campaigns.

Swedish Organization for Global Health webinar, Periods in Pandemics: menstrual health activism during the COVID-19 crisis was held on May 28th. Menstrual Hygiene Day hosted our conversation with menstrual health activists and nonprofit workers from Sweden, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. They spoke about the challenges they face and, most importantly, how they are overcoming them.

Find the recording of the our webinar below.

Yes, I’m on my Period. No, I’m Not Dirty.

Today, my period came a couple of days earlier than usual so it caught me off guard at work. I asked a co-worker if she had a pad or tampon I could borrow. She handed me a case that she expected me to take to the bathroom and return.

Instead, I opened it and took out the pad. She looked at me and asked, “don’t you mind walking around with it?” I replied, “I don’t, it’s perfectly natural.” When I returned to my desk I started thinking…why is being in your period still frowned upon? God forbid someone hears you say the word ‘menstruation’, because it is ‘rude’ to talk about the topic in public.

It’s 2020 and the cashier at the drug store still looks at me strangely when I buy tampons and say no thank you when she offers me a plastic bag. How dare I walk down the street without hiding my malign purchase?

For centuries, women on their periods have been thought of as ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. This has to stop. It is a social construction that leads to gender discrimination, misinformation and taboos.

This experience I had at work came at a very convenient moment since last week the documentary Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar. This brilliant documentary shows us how women in rural India fight for menstrual equality. But our sisters in India aren’t the only ones battling with this issue.

At least 500 million women and girls globally lack space and supplies for handling their periods.

In Mexico, where 44% of our women live in poverty, many don’t even have access to decent period care, let alone healthcare supplies. This lack of healthcare access causes them to live in hygiene crisis and at risk of infection.

In some countries, menstrual supplies are no longer taxed and in others they are totally free of cost. Governments needs to be on our side with these initiatives so women from more vulnerable social situations don’t have to choose between food on their plate or menstrual supplies.

As women, we need to empower other women to speak freely about their periods without embarrassment or shame.

We need to speak our minds when we are faced with stigma and taboo.

Men need to stop ignoring or repelling us whenever we talk about menstruation and get involved in listening to what this process means to us and how we get through it.

It’s 2020. Menstruation is natural. Let’s end period taboo once and for all.

Taking Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) Seriously

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common experience for many women. The most common symptoms include bloating, fatigue, headaches, and mood swings. As annoying and bothersome as these symptoms can be, most women are able to endure this monthly disturbance without any major issues.

But PMS can turn into a debilitating and even life-threatening disorder that is unfortunately not nearly as well-known as it should be – premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

The disorder is recognized by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization. Current estimates indicate that PMDD affects 1 in 20 women or individuals assigned female at birth of reproductive age.

The symptoms of PMDD are similar to those of PMS, but much more severe. They also include loss of interest in daily activities, difficulty concentrating, anger, sudden mood swings, and severe anxiety and/or depression. Symptoms can even lead up to suicidal thoughts and/or attempts.

Several women have shared the struggle of living with PMDD with the BBC. They talk of experiencing bursts of anger, suicidal thoughts, and even being sanctioned to psychiatric hospitals. With treatment, however, the women shared that they are able to live happy and fulfilling lives, despite PMDD.

Lack of awareness of PMDD is likely the main obstacle for treatment.

I myself only heard of it for the first time around a year ago. A survey commissioned by the Society for Women’s Health Research revealed that 45% of respondents never talked about PMS with their doctors. Worse yet: 24% of respondents who claimed having severe PMS symptoms were unaware of PMDD, and feared that their doctors would not take their complaints seriously.

To diagnose PMDD, as there is no specific test, a doctor must first eliminate other possible causes for symptoms. The doctor will want to rule out thyroid disorder, anxiety and mood disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome, for example. These can all cause similar symptoms to PMDD. To be considered PMDD, symptoms must show up during the week or two before a woman gets her menstrual period, and subside shortly after the period begins.

Treatment options vary, from hormonal treatment with birth control pills, to taking the class of antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Since PMDD only shows up around the time before a menstrual period, it may take a few cycles for treatment to take effect, but with adequate treatment and support, it’s possible to live well with PMDD.

Women’s health, especially surrounding menstruation, remains a taboo and stigmatized topic, even in developed countries.

We need a major culture change to start taking women-specific health issues as seriously as other health issues. I believe this change must start with us, women, in breaking the shame and stigma that may live within ourselves. How many times have we been ashamed of our own periods and PMS symptoms? I know I have. Change begins with us. We should be proud of our biology, know our bodies, talk openly, take our symptoms seriously, seek medical help, fight for the treatment we deserve, and encourage other women to do same.

If you think you may have PMDD, please reach out for help, especially if you’ve been experiencing suicidal thoughts. Talk to a trusted family member of friend and seek medical help as soon as possible. If you have PMDD, we welcome you to share your experience with us, so we can break the stigma together!

Improving Menstrual Hygiene in Zimbabwe’s Schools

My name is Marvellous Chimhutu and I am a student at Young Africa Academy, located in the Epworth suburb in Zimbabwe. I am a 15-year-old girl, the eldest in a family of five (two boys, two girls, and our mother Lisana) and currently doing my Form Three secondary education.

I am part of a group of learners who have been participating in CARE-supported guidance and counseling lessons since Form One.

Where I come from, people do not talk about pads and menstruation.

It is considered taboo to discuss these issues, and for a girl like me it requires bravery to ask for help. I discovered that this was not unique to me and my family. Many girls at school have challenges preparing for our first periods and we aren’t taught how to manage them.

Marvellous Chumhutu. Photo by CARE.

Like all other girls of my age, when I started having my period I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do. While l was very excited at the thought of growing up, I didn’t know how to manage it and was afraid of being laughed at if I spoiled my uniform at school. One time when it happened, I hid myself in the toilet waiting for the bell to ring so that I could escape and go home. I stayed at home for the whole week until the period ended.

What excites me and my friends is that the lessons we’ve received have raised my awareness of adolescent sexual reproductive health – among other issues and needs specific to being a girl. The most common issues have been around menstrual hygiene. The major challenge for me was getting pads to use, and then to know where I could discard the used ones at both at home and at school.

Our teacher, Ms. Warikandwa, noticed that most girls would be absent for days when they were on their periods, so she had to do mass counseling sessions to teach us how to prepare. I learned to keep myself clean. Later in the term, we all had lessons about menstrual hygiene, both boys and girls. We now know that it is a natural process. We have also tackled the topic in science and I proudly aced it.

The boys have stopped laughing at us when we spoil our uniforms (they now find the teacher for us).

We used CARE’s Community Score Card (CSC) as a platform to present our need for menstrual hygiene support from our families and at school. We were able to demonstrate to our parents, teachers, and school administration that periods were contributing to absenteeism and poor academic results among girls. After that, we made plans to construct an incinerator, install mirrors in the toilets, and for the school to keep emergency sanitary wear for us at school in case we need them.

The school was very supportive, and I feel proud that I was one of the advocates in this process. Now we have special bins to dispose of used sanitary wear and an incinerator.

My confidence has improved when I participate in class and sports because I can manage my periods.

I am also happy that I can also share information to help my sisters and friends at home. l thank my teacher for being there for me, I have all the information I need. I wish every girl could be empowered with the same knowledge and information that I have.

10 Bloody Big Wins for Periods in 2019 (so far)

1.Periods won an Oscar!

Netflix’s Period: End of Sentence, an uplifting film about menstruation in India, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short! This prestigious award was won even after an anonymous Oscar judge said men would not vote for the film because “it’s just icky for men.”

2. Free menstrual products hit England

2019 has been a BIG year for menstrual equality in England. After the inspiring Amika George launched the #FreePeriods campaign, things really took off. The government listened and took action. First schools offered free menstrual products, and a few months later the NHS followed.

3. Period books galore

This is the year of the period books. From the Children’s book The Moon Within to books such as the Managed Body and Period Power, the beauty of periods and the strength of menstruators’ activism is showcased in beautiful hardback. Oh – and let’s not forget Germany’s ingenious effort to curtail the tampon tax… the tampon book!

4. Standing up for better products in Kenya

March brought the fantastic #MyAlwaysExperience campaign to Kenya. Women called for a boycott of Always sanitary towels, accusing the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, of supplying the African market with substandard products. Their experiences ranged from rashes, itchiness, bad smell and discomfort. The campaign showed the power of voices to stand up to the injustice of low-quality menstrual products!

5. Periods took the issue

In May, periods literally covered the May issue of Scientific American, which for the first time focused a whole issue specifically on women’s reproductive health! What is the real purpose of a period? What are the consequences of gaps in medical understandings of menstruation? All was answered in this special edition.

6. South Africa campaign win

In April, the value-added tax on period products went from 15% to 0% in South Africa, all through the bloody hard work of the #BecauseWeBleed & #TamponTaxMustFall campaigns.

7. Period emoji launched

2019 saw the newest emoji make crimson waves across social media thanks to Plan International UK and a number of other fantastic activists. The red blood droplet is symbolic of menstruation and also of the fact that periods are not shameful!

8. Goodbye US Tampon Tax (well kind of)

This year saw more states in the US eliminate the ‘tampon tax’ – including Louisiana and Utah. That now makes a total of nine states which have given menstrual products a medical supply tax exemption, aligning them with products like condoms, dandruff shampoo, gauze and chapstick.

9. ‘Nothing’s more cuterus than your uterus’!

A medical congress in Bengaluru shot period pads to the headlines by creating the longest line of sanitary pads EVER! This Guinness World Record included about 500 people who arranged more than 10,000 pads in a line stretching up to 1,078 metres long. It took almost 8 hours to complete!

10. Menstrual Hygiene Day: bigger, louder, bloodier

This Menstrual Hygiene Day is set to be bigger and better than ever. Bringing together activists, program staff, people who menstruate and many more there’s a whole flow of social media movement today. Check out Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting some myths around menstruation.

Follow #MenstruationMatters and #MHDay2019 and read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org to make sure you keep in the bloody loop! ?

The Importance of Menstrual Health Education

Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.

The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”

The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.

For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.

A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”

Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.

A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.

Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.

This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.

One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”

Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.

It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?