Period poverty and COVID-19: How the pandemic is impacting access to menstrual products

Period poverty affects women and girls all over the world. Access to menstrual products, safe hygiene facilities and the right to manage periods without shame or stigma is essential for anyone who menstruates – a basic fact of life for billions.

In many countries, persisting taboos and the inability to manage menstruation in a safe and dignified way poses risks for many. Girls may miss school or turn to improvised products such as old rags or straw in lieu of safe period products. This reality puts some girls in developing countries at risk for infection, illness or other serious long-term health problems.

sign, menstruation is normal for girls
Raising awareness and challenging period stigma outside of a primary school in Uganda

Furthermore, many simply cannot afford to purchase period products due to poverty – a reality that is being further exacerbated by COVID-19 as the pandemic places even more pressure on family finances and access to supplies.

“With families stocking up on food and supplies, I can tell you for a fact that the majority of families in my area will not consider sanitary towels. Those are normally considered a luxury,” says Nisera, 16, a girl living in Nairobi’s Kibera slum which is Africa’s largest urban slum and home to 2.5 million people living in crowded conditions, often without electricity or clean water.

When COVID-19 cases were first confirmed in Nairobi, the city – and especially Kibera – went into lockdown to help prevent the spread of the virus. But for girls like Nisera, the school closures meant she was no longer able to access menstrual products to manage her period.

“I used to get sanitary towels from my school in Kibera. Now that schools are closed, I have to use pieces of cloth, which is very uncomfortable,” says Nisera. “I feel sad as I can’t do things normally, like household chores or sit down as I am afraid of soiling my clothes.”

girl holding the contents of a dignity kits containing underwear, soap and sanitary pad
Plan International’s dignity kits which helps girls and women manage their periods safely

To help Nisera and others in similar circumstances, Plan International has been on the ground in Kibera and in communities all over the world to distribute menstrual hygiene supplies to those who need it most because being able to manage your period in a safe and dignified way is a right, not a privilege.

Addressing the need for menstrual products

In Kibera, Plan International rallied local youth groups to help hand out sanitary towels to girls and women across the community. Within a matter of days, we distributed 2,700 sanitary towels.

Mother with period supplies she received during covid-19
One of the many beneficiaries of sanitary pad distribution in Kibera

Cynthia, one of the youth advocates, was taken aback by the reaction she received when she was giving out the supplies to other girls.  

“The adolescent girls and young women were elated by the door-to-door distribution,” she says.  “I was surprised though, that in some homes, even mothers of the adolescent girls were desperate for them. I had not thought that even the older women – the age of our parents – would also be in such dire need.”

“There is definitely need for more sanitary towels, not just in Kibera but in other informal settlements and even rural areas. We are a small fraction of what is happening across the country, with millions of girls having been used to accessing sanitary towels in schools,” says Cynthia.

Girl distributes period supplies for girls on behalf
Plan international supported youth distributing period supplies in Kibera

“A gift for many of us” 

Hygiene kits were also distributed in Mozambique to combat period poverty

In Mozambique, Plan International has been working to provide supplies to address period poverty in a region that is still trying to recover from the disastrous impact of Cyclone Idai. Catastrophic damage, caused by strong winds and extensive flooding, wiped away harvests and destroyed seed stocks. Millions lost their homes and livelihoods.

Deolinda, 19, has been struggling to find steady employment since the cyclone hit and the COVID-19 pandemic is making her situation even more challenging because she is solely responsible for looking after her 4 young sisters – all of whom menstruate.

Deolinda holding hygiene kit from Plan International
Deolinda holding the hygiene kit she received

“When the state of emergency was announced by the president, I began to panic. We were told that to prevent getting infected from this coronavirus, we must stay at home and not go to school or work. This makes it very difficult for me because I rely on odd jobs to get by, this is how I have been providing for my family,” says Deolinda.

“When I found out that Plan International was going to help us with a hygiene kit that has menstrual pads, body soap, washing soap for clothes, and other products we do not have, I cried. It made me emotional because it was a gift for many of us,” she says, adding that many others in her community had similar reactions. 

“With the shortage of clean water and the order to stay at home, I did not want to use a cloth during my menstrual cycle, so I am glad I have this kit. I hope that more people like me can also benefit, because I am sure, at least here in Buzi, many women need something like this.

For me, this means that my sisters and I, and other poor women in the district will be okay until the state of emergency ends.”

Periods don’t stop for pandemics

Global crises shine a light on the inequities that exist in our society. As the world grapples with an unprecedented health emergency, millions face an increased lack of access to appropriate period supplies.

Through our gender equality programming, Plan International has been working to challenge the stigma surrounding menstruation in the countries where we work, while also ensuring those who menstruate are able to do so in a safe and dignified way.

girls with dignity kits with pants, reusable sanitary pad and soap to help address period poverty
In Nigeria’s Borno State, 1,400 adolescent school girls were provided with dignity kits

In the wake of COVID-19, we are tirelessly working in communities around the world to distribute thousands of hygiene and menstruation kits to vulnerable households, female healthcare workers and adolescent girls. These kits include items such as period products, underwear, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, washcloths, laundry soap, and diapers.  

But we can’t do this important work without you.

Together, we must act to help stop the spread of this pandemic and the impact it is having on communities around the world. Please donate today to help us reach the most vulnerable with lifesaving information, supplies and resources they need to stay safe and healthy.

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