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Menstrual needs didn't stop with the corona crisis

 Judith Chelangat displays some reusable sanitary towels (Photo: Nikko Tanui/Standard)

Covid-19 is an unprecedented pandemic in scope and impact. Every facet of human life bears the strain, loss and change occasioned by the pervasive nature of the global emergency. Covid-19 has unfortunately further worsened pre-existing inequalities, discrimination and marginalisation of women and girls in more ways than one.

Despite being an important issue concerning women and girls, Menstrual Health Management (MHM) is often overlooked within the framework of national development strategies and more so in pandemic response. Menstrual health is not a standalone as it impacts directly on other issues such as access to education, food security, economic opportunities and reproductive health.

This pandemic and/or the response to it has worsened inaccessibility to water, sanitation and hygienic menstrual products. These challenges are further augmented by an economic meltdown that has significantly affected the populations in informal settlements. Consequently, “period poverty” is already a reality for women and girls living in poor and marginalised communities, emergency and humanitarian contexts, and incarceration facilities, who have special needs or disabilities and/or facing other barriers.

With current restriction measures to contain Covid-19, product availability for girls who rely on the government supplies distributed through the school system has been affected. Women who rely on daily wages that allow them the economic empowerment to access necessities such as sanitary products, have lost their jobs and this has gravely affected their livelihood.

When the Kenyan Cabinet approved the MHM Bill in 2019, it was a landmark move in the right direction; a significant gain for women and girls. It was anticipated at that time that the legislation would scale up the management of menstrual hygiene and rightfully place it as a rights issue, bringing it into the mainstream of the country’s health and development agenda. It is important that this legislation is launched and made available to the public, who can hold accountable the policymakers behind it.

There was fear, nevertheless, that the act was not all-inclusive and that it had left out individuals who also needed to benefit from the service by the government. The initial draft provided only for girls who were already in school. It was apparent that the draft would leave out vulnerable groups that included girls who were out of school, women with disabilities, those enrolled in detention facilities and refugees. The President, in November 2019, addressed the inclusion concerns and approved a more inclusive National Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) policy, aimed at scaling up the management of menstrual hygiene.

In order for the Menstrual Health Management Bill to be progressive and implemented successfully, a multi-stakeholder approach is key. From media practitioners to academics, civil society, digital influencers, public servants and community leaders, it is crucial that all agencies band together to amplify messaging that seeks to end period stigma and push for an approach that will ensure that all girls and women have access to necessary products and information. It is a human right, and failure to provide this access infringes on the rights of women and girls.

Biological process

Menstruation is a normal biological process experienced by half of the world’s population for a significant part of their lives. This includes women, girls, trans- and intersex people who menstruate. Menstruation is not just something mothers, sisters and their partners have to deal with once a month, it is at the very core of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Millions of women and girls struggle to manage their monthly menstruation safely, comfortably and with dignity. Menstruating girls and women face inadequate access to water and sanitation facilities, while they may lack the most basic materials needed for managing blood flow, such as menstrual and other relevant hygiene products. Privacy, in informal communities is often scarce, and when toilets are available, they often lack locks, functioning doors, lighting and separation by gender.

It is imperative that girls, women and all who menstruate are provided with the necessary information, resources and support to manage their menstrual needs throughout the life cycle - from menarche to menopause, including in times of crisis like the Covid-19. However, menstrual health remains a silent issue locally, where (poor) access to health management for girls, women and other people who menstruate is negatively influenced by social norms and hinders their daily activities, leads to stigma and discrimination, and has negative implications for their sexual and reproductive and mental health.

Given the enormous strain that the Covid-19 pandemic and/or the national response has placed on citizens, deliberate effort must be made to alleviate the impact of period poverty on all who menstruate.

In Africa, efforts to improve policy dialogue, knowledge management, partnerships and coordination of menstrual health management across the continent are advancing, with some results being released in countries such as Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe announcing the removal of Value Added Tax on menstrual products; and the adoption of national standards for menstrual products in Uganda and South Africa.

These actions are imperative not only to ensure dignity for every woman and girl as they menstruate, but also to create an enabling environment to harness the optimal contribution of 50 per cent of the national human capital.

Improved menstrual health and hygiene will, therefore, not only benefit those who menstruate, but entire societies across generations. We call upon all actors to prioritise menstrual health management. The voices of women and girls must reverberate collectively in all spaces mobilised for the Covid-19 response and the post-Covid socio-economic reconstruction.

Dr Olajide is a UNFPA Representative. Ms Mbugua is a Gender Equality Champion, author and Media Personality with the Inua Dada Foundation?

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