Periods can be challenging, for some more than others. Despite the fact that menstruation is a near-universal female experience, many girls and women face harmful consequences. For centuries, menstruation has been treated as a source of shame, rather than as a normal, healthy part of women’s lives. Initiatives to make menstruation day matter are both welcome and overdue. Women have to reuse disposable sanitary pads after a sharp rise in prices, campaigners have warned, criticising the government of the crisis-hit countries for not including pads and tampons on a list of subsidised imports. The report- ‘Middle East & Africa Feminine Hygiene Market Outlook, 2027’; by Bonafide Research, the lowest contributing region is likely to cross just value of USD 4 Billion by the end of the forecasted period. Adding to the crisis, Corona-virus restrictions have also made it difficult for women to access sanitary pads as well as contraceptive pills and sex health services.
Out of despair, some women pay with their bodies – exchanging sex for sanitary products. In Africa, they call this transactional sex, through which the girls can already fall pregnant or become infected with HIV as teenagers. They stuff sponges, rags, cotton, or even sand into their pants. However, this is unhygienic and can lead to infections. It can be estimated that 30% of girls in South Africa do not attend school while they are menstruating because they cannot afford sanitary products. This can set girls behind their male peers in classes and therefore deprive them of equal opportunities. The South African Human Rights Commission, highlights that a lack of access to sanitary products can have a ripple effect on the entire population.
Period poverty is an overwhelming concept in rural Africa. They either don’t have access to menstrual products and WASH (water, sanitation and good hygiene) facilities, or in the rare scenarios where they do, they don’t have any way of disposing menstrual waste. Women in resource-poor parts of countries in the region, owing to lack of availability of adequate products, use old clothes, paper, cotton or wool pieces, and even leaves to manage their menstrual bleeding. This situation is worse for school girls. The poor water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, including disposal, makes it difficult for girls to manage their menstrual cycle subjecting them to anxiety and stress. To address the problem of unavailability, many sub-Saharan countries have launched initiatives to better market penetration of sanitary pads. Kenya is the flag bearer in subsidising commercial sanitary products for rural girls and removing value-added tax on menstrual hygiene products.
For those who can afford and have access to adequate menstrual products, disposal remains a challenge. The disposal practices are often influenced by deeply embedded socio-cultural norms and taboos. Women often throw menstrual absorbents in deserted open areas or in latrines or with the routine waste disposal system. In Malawi, in the absence of any dustbins, women keep their used pads/clothes with them, under their bed. In Swaziland (Eswatini), more than half the girls either burn their pads or dispose it in toilets as they believed this is the only way to remove all traces of menstrual blood and help them maintain their integrity.