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Op-Ed: Menstrual health needs don’t stop during pandemics

Despite being an important issue concerning women and girls, Menstrual Health Management (MHM) is often overlooked within the framework of national development strategies and more so in pandemic response. Menstrual Health is not a standalone issue. It impacts directly on other issues such as access to education, food security, economic opportunities and reproductive health. This pandemic and/or the response to it has worsened inaccessibility to water, sanitation and hygienic menstrual products. These challenges are further augmented by an economic meltdown that has significantly affected the populations in informal settlements with women losing their livelihoods that allow them to access necessities such as sanitary products. Consequently “period poverty” is already a reality for women and girls living in poor and marginalized communities, emergency and humanitarian contexts, incarceration facilities, who have special needs or disabilities and/ or facing other barriers. With current restriction measures to contain COVID-19, product availability for girls who rely on the government supplies distributed through the school system has been affected. The initial draft of the MHM Bill raised fears that groups of individuals who also needed to benefit from the service by the government would be left behind, as it provided only for girls who were already in school. It left out vulnerable groups that included girls who were out of school, women with disabilities, those enrolled in detention facilities and refugees. In November 2019, the President in a landmark move, addressed the inclusion concerns and approved a more inclusive MHM Policy. In order for the Menstrual Health Management Bill to be progressive and implemented successfully, a multi-stakeholder approach is key. From media practitioners to academics, civil society, digital influencers, public servants and community leaders, it is crucial that all agencies band together to push for an approach that ends stigma and ensures access to period products. It is a human right and failure to provide this access infringes on the rights of women and girls. Menstruation is a normal biological process experienced by half of the world’s population for a significant part of their lives. Menstruation is not just something mothers, sisters and their partners have to deal with once a month. It is at the very core of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Millions of women and girls struggle to manage their monthly menstruation safely, comfortably and with dignity. Menstruating girls and women face inadequate access to water and sanitation facilities, while they may lack the most basic materials needed for managing blood flow, such as menstrual and other relevant hygiene products. Privacy, in informal communities is often scarce, and when toilets are available, they often lack locks, functioning doors, lighting and separation by gender. It is imperative that girls, women and all who menstruate are provided with the necessary information, resources and support to manage their menstrual needs throughout the lifecycle- from menarche to menopause including in times of crisis like the COVID19. However, menstrual health remains a silent issue locally, where (poor) access to menstrual health management for girls, women and other people who menstruate is negatively influenced by social norms and hinders their daily activities, leads to stigma and discrimination, and has negative implications for their sexual and reproductive and mental health. Deliberate effort must be made during COVID19 to alleviate the impact of period poverty on all who menstruate. In Africa, efforts to improve policy dialogue, knowledge management, partnerships and coordination of menstrual health management across the continent are advancing, with some results being realized in countries such as Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe announcing the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on menstrual products; and the adoption of national standards for menstrual products in Uganda and South Africa. These actions ensure dignity for every woman and girl as they menstruate and create an enabling environment to harness the optimal contribution of 50 percent of the national human capital. Improved menstrual health and hygiene will therefore not only benefit those who menstruate, but entire societies across generations. We call upon all actors to prioritize Menstrual Health Management. The voices of women and girls must reverberate collectively in all spaces mobilized for the COVID-19 response and the post-COVID socio-economic reconstruction.