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OP-ED: Ensuring women’s health during Covid-19

  • Published at 08:29 pm July 12th, 2020
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Photo: Bigstock

It all starts with quality water, good sanitation, and improved menstrual hygiene measures

World Population Day is observed annually on July 11 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) with unique themes. This year, the UNFPA unveiled a new theme which was to “raise awareness of women and girls’ needs for sexual and reproductive health, and vulnerabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic.” This theme is timely and pertinent to the attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG-6. 

To attain this goal, the importance of “WASH” -- water, sanitation, and hygiene cannot be discarded with a wave of the hand, as a lack of fresh water and poor sanitation impacts the physical, social, and mental development negatively, particularly among the female youths and women. 

It is essential to ensure that water is always clean and free from any physical, chemical, and biological contamination. However, we are currently failing to do so, as the quality of water keeps deteriorating due to pollution. 

Hence, it is high time due attention is directed towards the improvement of water quality through the use of advanced technology. As a result, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) is currently providing awareness through education to improve the quality of water in a bid to overcome this global challenge.  

In this pandemic, medical waste can negatively impact water quality when improperly disposed. Wastewater should also be disposed of appropriately as the coronavirus can be found in faeces or urine, implying that improved sanitation is crucial. Hence, it is undeniable that proper hygiene and sanitation is the fundamental driver for the civilization of human behaviour and development. 

Moreover, it is one of the basic human rights that plays a significant role in health status and environmental perfection; as accessibility and availability of improved and adequate sanitation systems increase the standard of living, subsequently reducing health risks and environmental pollution. Therefore, an improved health condition increases the productivity of humans, and correspondingly reduces health costs.  

Bangladesh is currently in its demographic dividend stage indicating a greater population of young people; there is immense pressure to undertake urgent steps to ensure a productive female youth population as the current female labour force participation is unsatisfactory compared to the male labour force participation. 

An unemployment rate of 15% was observed for the female youths, while an 8.2% rate was observed for the male youths. It is also worth noting that overall, the female labour force participation rate is much lower compared to male counterparts. Lack of access to fresh water and good sanitation systems for women and children could result in different psychological, physiological, and environmental risk factors, subsequently hindering their overall development. 

An absence of fresh and clean water, and safe toilets specifically during menstruation, results in acute and chronic infections, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio, and exacerbates malnutrition, food insecurity, depression, and stress among the female youth. This is a very common phenomenon for females residing in low or middle-income countries.

Menstruation also acts as a barrier to educational performance as menstrual practices are still bounded by taboos and socio-cultural restrictions, particularly in rural areas. Failure of females to adopt proper hygienic practices during menstruation will make them more prone to infection.

Owing to the social, cultural, and financial barriers in Bangladesh, it is quite difficult to implement fresh water and hygiene strategies to bolster female human resource development for sustainable environmental economic growth. 

Therefore, the following strategies need to be undertaken immediately to fully utilize the potential of the female youth, and protect women and girls from the pandemic. 

First of all, the female doctors and nurses in every hospital -- especially in coronavirus-specialized health centres -- should be equipped with sanitation facilities and sufficient water supply. Otherwise, the female medical staffs’ health will be at high risk, ultimately reducing the quality of services rendered to their patients.  

Second, there are a large number of female workers in the garment sector in the country who work relentlessly to minimize the economic losses in this pandemic. Hence, the owners of all garment establishments should arrange for better “WASH” facilities for the female workers to enhance their productivity.

Third, menstruation hygiene management training should be introduced in all service sectors to ensure continuity of female workers.

Fourth, menstruation hygiene management should be a point of focus in all organizations for female workers. For instance, vending machines for sanitary napkins should be installed in every service and garment sector for better health quality of the female workers. 

Fifth, for ease of access to clean and pure water during this contagion, well-coordinated sanitation, and menstruation hygiene systems, are required from both public and private sectors. 

For example, the water resources ministry could collaborate with the institutions manufacturing sanitary napkins in a bid to provide better and improved “WASH” services to females at subsidized prices.

Nusrat Jafrin is Assistant Professor, Department of Population Sciences, University of Dhaka. Dr Muhammad Mehedi Masud is Assistant Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia.

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