Covid-19 and Menstrual Hygiene Challenges: A Webinar Report
Written By Sophie Basescu, IMHER Research Assistant
Edited by Fiona Sleigh, IMHER Research Assistant
In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th, organizations have been hosting many webinars and socially distanced events. One such event was sponsored by Days for Girls, the UNFPA, and the ACMHM (IMHER and several other organizations were virtual cohosts of it, as well). The May 27 online session with a number of featured speakers brought together participants from around the world to consider the intersection of menstrual health and hygiene work and Covid-19 in Africa.
A number of relatively timeless topics emerged during the call: boys and men need to be included more in MHM discussions; differently abled individuals need more support than they are getting; stigma issues need to be better addressed; WASH infrastructure is key to MHM; more product innovation is needed; and sectoral silos inhibit progress on MHM.
Here we will be focusing on a selection of key ideas coming forth from the event that are specific to the MHM/Covid-19 intersection that many MH-focused organizations are grappling with right now.
- Communication needs to be far more innovative than it has been in the past.
Janet Mbungua from Kenya said that with schools closed and social distancing restrictions in place, her organization has been getting creative with its communications around MHM. For example, they are working to reach girls through radio programming. Others mentioned using text/SMS-based communications so that girls and women with simple phones and/or little data could still communicate with, and learn from, her organization when socially isolated.
Perhaps these innovations may continue to be useful for comprehensive communication, even when the coronavirus is not a core issue in the future. How else can girls be reached in your area – or in the most remote areas – when school is not in session? What investments have you made in alternative communications due to social distancing that may be worth continuing even after schools are open and social distancing is no longer required?
- Pads need to be classified as essential products, and it may be worth pushing for their reclassification if they are not.
Whether due to the breakneck speed at which major policy decisions for the halting of non-essential commerce took place, or due to the perpetual underrepresentation of women in most political decision-making positions around the world, menstrual products were not classified as “essential products” in many countries.
Subsequently, production and distribution of products became difficult in many places, disrupting supply chains. Additionally, sometimes pads couldn’t be sold in stores that had them due to restrictions that banned stores from selling items classified as “non-essential”.
Given that there could be more restrictions imposed should coronavirus cases spike, reclassifying menstrual products in places that initially deemed them as non-essential may be a worthwhile investment. Moreover, putting menstrual health on the political agenda is always to the good: it keeps policymakers considering it as a priority while educating them about the needs of menstruators along the way.
- There are fears that money previously earmarked for MHM will now be going towards Covid, despite the fact that menstrual needs in low-income areas are as pressing as ever.
It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this post that #PeriodsDontStopForPandemics. In fact, with unemployment and poverty rates higher than ever, pad distribution chains disrupted, and mounting needs to educate school kids while education is curtailed, a strong case can be made that help with menstrual needs is higher than ever before.
The challenge is that health-focused funding streams can be diverted for pandemics. This call confirmed that many working in MHM are worried about that. Unfortunately, it seems there are few clear solutions to that challenge, other than increasing political and public visibility for MH-related work. See this Plan International Report that outlines many of these challenges.
- The menstrual needs of those on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus are not always being met.
Speakers pointed out that frontline workers don’t always have the time, privacy, and/or products to address their menstrual needs. Moreover, MHM needs have often been overlooked for women in isolation and/or in hospitals. For more on this issue and other issues pertaining to menstruation and the coronavirus, see this UNICEF brief.
It is not all bad news and extra challenges though!
- Temporary policy changes may provide pressure for longer-term progress.
Speakers pointed out that some countries have temporarily eliminated taxes on menstrual products during quarantines. These changes may help create positive pressure to implement these changes in the post-pandemic world.
- An increasing focus on sanitation and handwashing availability may have positive spillover effects for MHM work.
A focus on WASH sanitation issues can help to provide women with some resources they need to manage their menstruation, as well.
- Innovation in response to these challenges is likely to have long-term positive effects in many arenas.
As mentioned above, communication innovations may prove to be useful long after this crisis period has ended. But innovation in other arenas (i.e., delivery, distribution, etc.) may prove to be advantageous as well. Additionally, the rapid emergence of webinars like this one – with their ability to efficiently educate, share information, and inspire those doing this work – also demonstrates progress for those doing MHM. While it is hard to entirely replace the relationship-building aspect of in-person international conferences, they are also usually far too expensive for few beyond the most financially robust organizations to attend. As comfort with online conferencing increases – and as tech solutions rise to meet those needs in high-quality but low-cost form – more of those out in the field doing this work seem likely to be able to learn from one another through virtual collaboration.
As Janet Mbugua stated during the event – a sentiment that was also echoed in the opening words of Julitta Onabanjo – there is no one size fits all solution for all menstruators in all locations. Participants in the webinar saw that fact reflected in the panelists’ and participants’ wide range of experiences with MHM work.
At IMHER, we wish you all the best of luck and knowledge on this Menstrual Hygiene Day as you and your organization navigate these and other challenges – as well as opportunities for progress – in your own communities around the world, 365 days of the year.