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A Different Kind of Gender War: Period Poverty During Conflict

A Different Kind of Gender War: Period Poverty During Conflict

My period, my rules” is a trailblazing health initiative that offers reusable menstruation products (a menstrual cup, underwear, and two packages of cloth pads) to residents in Catalonia, Spain – all for free. Yes, you can believe your eyes: for free!

Menstrual Hygiene Day, May 28, aims to break the taboos that undermine menstrual health and hygiene: The United Nations estimates that 1.8 billion people menstruate across the globe, or roughly 25% of the world’s population – that’s 300 million people, every day, dealing with menstruation. This figure includes the nearly 600 million forcibly displaced women and girls in every hemisphere who lived near war zones and refugee camps. That 2022 number may be increasing, given ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ukraine.

Menstrual health has been linked to several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to advance all nations across the globe. Despite its importance –  half of the world’s population experiences menstruation during their lifetimes –  menstrual health is yet to be recognized as a stand-alone health and human rights issue. Over the years, many countries and some US states have tried implementing initiatives that address menstrual health inequities by completely eliminating the “pink tax” –  the gender-based price disparity of products and services that are marketed to women.

Providing free or less-costly menstrual products is one part of the solution: Other essentials include access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Forced mass displacements during such conflicts threaten the essential rights and well-being of individuals and communities. People forced to leave their homes not only face repeated extreme trauma; they also encounter unique risks through the destruction of clean water and sanitation infrastructure. Without these resources, people who menstruate face “period poverty” – the insidious, unspoken forms of gender inequality that are reinforced during armed conflicts.

The conflict in Gaza has displaced millions into hospitals, makeshift housing, and tents, which lack access to clean water and thus can’t support daily domestic and personal hygiene practices. An estimated 700,000 people who menstruate in Gaza are thus at higher risk for dehydration, urinary infections, and other reproductive health problems because they lack adequate clean water, functional sanitation facilities, and appropriate and affordable sanitary menstrual products. Some women cope by taking medications offered at local markets and pharmacies that delay their menses. But blockades and limited medical supplies mean these are not always accessible. At the same time, women must share overcrowded bathrooms or makeshift toilets, violating United Nations recommendations for refugee camps. This lack of privacy hinders safe menstrual management, including changing clothes and bathing. Menstrual health products are also being sold at high prices for possibly low quality sanitary pads, increasing the risk of infection. In other instances, people use tent scraps and clothing items due to the inaccessibility of sterile menstrual products, risking damage to their education and mental health.

Refugee camps have historically sought to provide basic necessities, such as food, water, and shelter, but menstrual health is most often forgotten. Even when toilets are available, they are not equally accessible across genders. For women, this means a lack of privacy, discomfort, stress, and vulnerability to harassment and gender-based violence. Here in the US, menstrual health inequities challenge an especially vulnerable population: unhoused communities. People experiencing homelessness are internally displaced daily through encampment sweeps. Forced displacements also perpetuate menstrual health inequity, as they lead to the loss of belongings and disrupt the connection between service providers and the community. As in refugee camps, people experiencing homelessness also face unique challenges to managing their menstruation. This arises from a lack of access to affordable menstrual products, difficulty maintaining personal hygiene (as a result of limited access to safe public toilets and showers), and concurrent health problems. These challenges compound the stigma already attached to menstruation, which is typically hidden, perpetuates stereotypes, secrecy, and in some cultures continues to be a taboo.

To be sure, periods don’t stop during a crisis. People who menstruate deserve dignity and human rights. We need to help communities experiencing armed conflicts, while also acknowledging and supporting menstrual health. Lifting this real but unrecognized burden can make a very real impact on the lives of millions. Recognizing menstrual health as a human right is also a vital step towards gender equality and improved mental and physical health.

Everyone who menstruates –  in conflict zones and refugee camps, in shelters and unhoused – needs and deserves access to necessary information, sanitary products, and facilities to manage their periods safely and with dignity.  Prioritizing menstrual health delivers long-term, positive health impacts. It’s imperative to shift the narrative and support initiatives that tackle menstrual poverty and promote menstrual equality. Period.

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