With government-imposed lockdowns and limited social contact, the world has quickly adapted to the new normal in the age of Coronavirus. But for millions of women around the world, coronavirus only compounds inequalities they face, leading them into uncertain and vulnerable conditions, such as the issues related to feminine hygiene.
Workplace shutdowns, evictions, uncertainty in the gig economy, and a lack of access to paid leave and social support has all contributed to a worldwide financial crisis. Christina Littrell is the Administrative Manager and Marketing Associate at I Support The Girls (ISTG). Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit distributes underwear and menstrual products to women around the world through an international affiliate program. Littrel says that they have received hundreds of requests for period products a day since the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m a single mom who lost her job today due to coronavirus and I receive no child support. I have five ladies including myself with needs monthly and I can’t afford it.” reads Littrell, from one of the many support requests ISGT received.
“Periods don’t stop for pandemics," she says.
For women in the Global South, the virus only compounds their hardships. Approximately two thirds of the female population work in the informal sector, like those who are part of the mass apparel industry with its low pay and poor working conditions. For these women, lockdowns and curfews lead to little or no work, removing their source of income and dragging them to further poverty with no sick leave and unemployment benefits.
“In Sri Lanka, particularly in the rural areas, feminine hygiene is being incredibly compromised right now,” says Jessica Mason, founder of The Jasmine Foundation. The nonprofit based in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, offers education and skills training to women and young girls, but has now extended their services to provide menstrual hygiene kits.
A large portion of women - many of whom are widows from a three-decade-long civil war - solely depend on the informal economy for their daily wage. Most of them work as day labourers, maids, and cleaners. Others work in large garment factories. The month-long curfew in Sri Lanka, as well as restrictions on social movement, have now left them with no work.
In South Asia, including Sri Lanka, social norms pressurise women to consider the needs of their family members over theirs.
“With no income, women will prioritise their immediate needs--which are food and medicine for the family,” says Mason.
When they can’t afford sanitary napkins, women having their periods resort to alternatives available.
“Some women use old kitchen cloth, baby diapers, cut up pieces of old sarees to use as pads,” says Mason. “They wash these out and reuse them, but very often they are washing without detergent because this is also an additional cost.”
While this is the case in low-income communities, women who usually can afford menstrual hygiene products around the globe now find grocery store shelves bare. Since the outbreak, ISTG has reported a 30% increase in product requests from women all over America. Littrell believes that the numbers are only going to rise as more women face homelessness and economic hardships.
“Unfortunately, periods aren’t usually a top priority for governments,” says Littrell.
While the US Congress recently included menstrual hygiene products as a part of their COVID-19 relief package, it only primarily benefits those who already have access to health care. Some US states are taking positive steps: In New York, menstrual hygiene products are free in all public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons.
In the Global South, government-funded welfare programs are little to nonexistent and do not recognise menstrual products as essential needs. The stigma surrounding menstruation also prevents women from reaching out for help. Littrell says that many women feel embarrassed talking about menstruation or seeking help for period kits. “It doesn’t happen with food, does it?” she ponders.
In many parts of the world, menstruation is still a taboo topic, suppressing women to raise their voice over hygienic concerns. “In Sri Lanka, periods are still considered dirty or impure, so it’s a hush-hush topic,” says Mason.
With the onset of COVID-19, Mason and her team at The Jasmine Foundation noticed the need for welfare programs in the community, and have begun collecting donations funds through a GoFundMe appeal. One month’s supply of sanitary packs for two ladies costs them 11 AUD.
“As the social impact of the pandemic would last for a few months if not years, we are looking at long term solutions to the issues, such as introducing sustainable business models where women can work from home, and providing reusable pads,” says Mason.
Similarly, ISTG and their 58 worldwide affiliates, including those in Australia, Canada, Pakistan and the Philippines, work tirelessly during the crisis to deliver pads and tampons to as many women in need of support.
“Periods can happen anywhere, at any time,” says Littrell. “Menstrual hygienic products are essential for women, for their health and dignity.”