Reduced income during the pandemic has led to discontinuation or gradual replacement of preferred feminine hygiene products, particularly sanitary pads
Over the past few years, Bangladesh has made significant strides in enabling hygiene menstrual management practice among younger women and girls in Bangladesh.
However, the pandemic has caused too many people to lose their sources of income. As a result, many women and girls have had no option other than going back to unhygienic rag clothes because buying period products has become a burden on their monthly budget.
Particularly for low-income people caught in the income crunch, buying hygienic period products has become more than a luxury at a time when families are struggling to put food on the table.
One such woman is Rahima. She gave up using sanitary pads when the lockdown began last year and her husband lost a significant chunk of the income he earned working in Gazipur.
On top of that, Rahima was experiencing excessive bleeding after she stopped using oral contraceptive pills. She still managed to buy her daughter's sanitary pads but to cut down costs, she went back to using cloths and tissue paper to manage her periods.
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Kajal, a garment factory worker in Mirpur, had been dealing with similar problems but was receiving sanitary pads on credit from an NGO.
She has not received any pay since the lockdown began in 2020. The family of five has been struggling financially and is behind on two months’ rent.
Kajal is a young woman who educated herself on menstrual hygiene, but without her pay she has no way to buy sanitary pads to manage her periods every month.
According to a study conducted by WaterAid Bangladesh in July 2020, titled “Hygiene Messaging and Practice during Covid-19 Rapid Assessment on Effectiveness and Sustainability,” one of the primary effects of the lockdown was a fall in income for many categories of workers.
Most severely affected were low-income workers from urban communities, especially daily wage earners and readymade garment workers. The reduced income has led to a discontinuation or gradual replacement of preferred feminine hygiene products, particularly sanitary pads, causing unwanted stress and anxiety among many women, the report added.
Finding a sustainable solution
Hasin Jahan, country director of WaterAid Bangladesh, told Dhaka Tribune that research by the organisation shows that many women were pushed into period poverty as the pandemic had dealt a direct blow to their financial condition.
“Unfortunately, period products are still considered a luxury product, not a necessity. Many families have slashed their budgets on period products and have gone back to using unhygienic cloth,” she told this correspondent.
Sustainable period products like silicon cups and eco-pads could be a solution, she said. However, these products are not available everywhere and many women do not feel uncomfortable using a new period product.
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“Take the example of a period cup. There is not enough research done on these kinds of products in Bangladesh,” she said.
Exempting period products from VAT and tax could be a viable solution in fighting period poverty, she added.
Menstrual products are one of the most highly taxed products around the world. Bangladesh is no different. There have been calls around the world to remove the so-called “period tax” because it unfairly burdens women financially. A person has to pay 15% VAT and tax on sanitary pads.
“People from the lower income community are already struggling to meet their ends. If the price of sanitary napkins goes down, they might be able to buy hygienic period products,” said Hasin.
Schools and educational institutions have been shut for more than a year and that has created another challenge for young girls, Hasin thinks.
There is a cultural stigma attached to buying period products or talking about it in front of any men. Young girls often shy away from asking their fathers, brothers, or any male members to get them period products as it is a longstanding taboo in this society to talk about menstruation with a male family member.
Since mostly male members of the family go out to buy groceries and other essential items, period products never make it to the grocery list.
“Young girls usually buy their period products on their way back from school. Now that schools and educational institutions are closed, they might get back to old clothes since it is reusable and they do not have to go out to buy them,” said Hasin.
Nahid Dipa, a menstrual hygiene activist and cofounder of the social innovation lab Mumble, told Dhaka Tribune: “If a family has a woman in reproductive age, managing menstrual hygiene products for her is their responsibility.
“Some families are lucky enough to collect food items from government or volunteer groups, but period products are not considered as basic needs.”
She thinks it is time to find a sustainable solution to the issue.
“Menstrual cups can be one of the options, as they are reusable for at least five years. It is a small investment to save money and could come in handy for lower income people in this pandemic,” she added.