As we commemorate Menstrual Hygiene Management 2021, we are met with the stark reality that in many parts of the world, menstruation remains a taboo topic yet there is no escape from the fact that it affects nearly half of the world’s population. For far too long, shame and stigma have been attached to the subject, not only making it difficult to address the challenges women and girls face in managing their menstrual hygiene, but also strips away their rightful dignity to do the same in the process.
More than a year after COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency by the WHO, lockdown restrictions continue to exacerbate pre-existing challenges to effective MHM. These include reduced access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, sanitary products. Research states that approximately one-third of the global population lives in water-stressed areas where water is frequently rationed. This rationing creates tension between competing needs: using water to combat the spread of COVID-19 or using water to support menstruators’ needs. More often than not, menstrual hygiene management needs become secondary. Further, shop closures, disrupted supply chains and self-isolation worldwide have made accessing menstrual hygiene products even more challenging.
What is worse is that families tend to consider sanitary towels a luxury item and fail to stock up on them. The stigma surrounding menstruation means women and girls have reported feeling shame about their reduced ability to manage menstruation during the pandemic, especially around the increased presence of men at home during lockdowns. Increased financial strain disproportionately impacts women and girls, who frequently are not in control of household finances. Without easy access to sanitary supplies, women and girls may be forced to trade sex for supplies, or for the money to buy supplies. School closures have also posed increasing difficulty for those reliant on them for their sanitary products, which have become increasingly unaffordable worldwide due to reduced incomes and inflated prices.
However, the stark reality is that even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the menstrual hygiene management needs of women and girls in developing countries such as Kenya remained largely unmet. And while COVID-19 continues to expose weak global healthcare systems, we are urgently called upon to incorporate menstrual hygiene management in interventions geared towards managing the ravages of this global healthcare crisis.
Important to note is that many civil societies and private sector players have made efforts to ease the MHM burden on Kenyan women and girls. For instance, Proctor and Gamble partnered with Y-ACT to provide sanitary towels to 5,000 vulnerable girls in April 2020, no doubt alleviating the harsh effects of poor MHM for them, even for just a short period of time. However, we recognize that the donation of single-use disposable sanitary products is often not a sustainable method of MHM due to the expense attached to it. And while re-useable products could be used as an alternative, this is not feasible in communities with inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. Governments should therefore strive to increase water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities particularly in informal settlement areas to ensure that women and girls in these areas are able to manage their menstrual hygiene with the dignity they deserve.
Despite COVID-19 containment measures taking precedence, the Kenyan government simply must prioritize menstrual hygiene management particularly for adolescent girls and young women in marginalized communities by ensuring the implementation of the MHM Policy Framework launched in 2020. Further, the government can contribute to improved MHM outcomes by reducing or eradicating tax levies on menstrual hygiene products which will in turn regulate the already exorbitant prices, bridging the access gap for young women and girls. In addition, we can address stigma and shame associated with menstruation by providing accurate and reliable information to adolescents and youth via comprehensive sexuality education in formal and informal settings.
Much needs to be done to ensure that all young women and girls are able to manage their menstrual hygiene during and post COVID-19; multi-sectoral action being the way to go. Truly, this is a cause that needs all hands on deck to ensure that all women and girls are able to realize their sexual and reproductive rights to the fullest.