GLOBALLY, women and girls’ choices of menstrual hygiene materials – including sanitary wear, soap and appropriate underwear – are often limited by costs and availability. They have to make do with what is available, not what they would prefer.
Yet this would change if the entire world could grasp that menstrual health is vital to the empowerment and well-being of women and girls worldwide. While crucial, it is not just about sanitary pads and appropriate toilets. It is also about ensuring that women and girls are in an environment that enables them to manage their menstruation with dignity.
Therefore creating a culture that welcomes discussion around the subject is crucial.
Last week on May 28, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in commemorating Menstrual Hygiene Day. The day seeks to break taboos surrounding menstruation and raise awareness on the importance of good menstrual hygiene.
This year’s commemoration was particularly important as it came at a time when Covid-19 is causing havoc across the world, with menstruating women and girls having to adjust to a new way of doing things.
While the primary impacts of a pandemic are the direct and immediate consequences of the pandemic on human health, the secondary impacts are those that are caused by the pandemic indirectly, mainly because of the measures that are taken to contain it.
Therefore while shortages of essential sanitary wear is already affecting certain populations, Covid-19 brings additional challenges as women and girls may not be able to visit supermarkets when they need to due to unavailability of transport or limited working hours.
Sadly, the most affected have been women and girls who are most vulnerable to economic and social shocks. Financial stress often lead to families prioritising other needs such as food or essential utility bills over purchasing sanitary wear for their female members.
An estimated 1,8 billion girls and women menstruate, yet millions of them across the world cannot go through their monthly cycles in a dignified, healthy way. Stories are often told of how they resort to using unhygienic materials such as tree leaves and cloths to absorb the menstrual blood. While the stories sound like exaggerated tales, they are true.
A woman or girl using such materials during her period is stripped of her dignity and self-confidence. If she is among other people, she is bound to be too self-conscious, worried that the whole world probably knows her predicament.
Therefore her mobility is restricted, her participation in school, work and community life is reduced, while her health is compromised through the use of unorthodox means. The negative impact is far-reaching as it can cause health problems that can only manifest years later, including cervical cancer. While there is currently no evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on the menstrual cycle directly, it is known that the stress and anxiety triggered by an uncomfortable period can negatively impact reproductive health in the long run.
Therefore it is crucial to provide sanitary wear to women and girls who have limited movement or those in camps or quarantine centres. Girls and women with disabilities, those in Cyclone Idai ravaged areas, as well as those in remote and rural communities form the bulk of those that need this assistance.
For those in urban areas, gaps in provision of water and sanitisation service, such as disruption of water supply, weighs heavily on the menstruating population. In Manicaland, most residential areas in Mutare as well as those in Rusape are blighted with inadequate water supplies. May the city fathers in those areas please spare a thought for the menstruating women and girls who have to search for water and wait for their chance to get some.
But where access to water is not a challenge, use of reusable materials such as menstrual cups, washable pads or absorbent underwear should be promoted as it is cost effective.
At a time when some organisations that had been providing such menstrual hygiene supplies are tempted to divert resources towards other issues, including Covid-19, they need to be reminded that women and girls cannot do without those supplies.
It should, however, be noted that accessing these women and girls is no longer as easy as it used to be considering the school closures and suspension of crowded community programmes.
Therefore the need to observe physical distancing must never be compromised in the quest to reach this population.
However, it is encouraging to note that sanitary wear was deemed essential, hence the removal of barriers to its manufacturing and supply during the ongoing national lockdown. Government has also suspended duty and Value Added Tax for sanitary wear after realising that the prices had shot beyond the reach of many women and girls.
Nevertheless, prices have continued shooting up, with retailers profiteering from the sale of the essential commodities. People are tempted to buy more today to cushion themselves from even higher prices tomorrow. However, panic buying and hoarding is discouraged. Rather, those who can afford should only purchase two months’ supply at most to safeguard their own access while respecting the needs of others.
While menstruation largely remains a taboo in our African society, we need to keep pushing the message until everyone plays their part in ensuring that women and girls go through their periods with dignity. Integrating menstrual hygiene management into global, national and local policies and programmes will drive the point home.