Discussions surrounding climate change and climate vulnerability often centre on food security, water scarcity, and displacement. One aspect that is frequently overlooked is the critical intersection between climate vulnerability and menstrual hygiene management. Period poverty — the lack of access to menstrual products and basic facilities to manage menstruation — is a global issue affecting millions of women and girls, and is particularly acute in rural areas, where access to clean water and sanitation facilities is limited.
The problem is compounded in climate vulnerable regions of Bangladesh, where marginalized communities have to endure the additional burden of increasingly severe natural disasters.
Heavy rainfall, cyclones, and floods are characteristic features of Bangladesh. However, extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity over the years. In fact, Bangladesh currently ranks among the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021.
Bangladesh’s high vulnerability can be attributed to its low-lying topography, coastal location, and tropical monsoon climate. Environmental disasters are putting the lives and livelihoods of people at risk. Factors such as high incidence of poverty and dependence on agriculture — a livelihood heavily affected by climate change — contribute to the increased vulnerability of marginalized communities living in climate vulnerable regions.
The people of haors, chars, and coasts of Bangladesh experience the brunt of extreme weather events. The inhabitants of climate-vulnerable regions live in constant fear of the inevitable adversities, while trying to overcome the loss and damage of the previous ones. Calamities disrupt access to safe and clean water sources and damage sanitation facilities, making it exceedingly difficult for individuals to manage menstruation hygienically.
Additionally, cyclones, flash floods, salinity intrusion, and protracted droughts disrupt livelihoods and reduce women’s ability to afford safe menstrual hygiene products. This hampers women from a dignified menstruation experience and increases the likelihood of resorting to unhygienic alternatives.
For most women struggling to make ends meet, menstrual products are a non-essential expense, while securing food is the main priority. Without the luxury of using sanitary napkins, women resort to using old rags. Prolonged usage of rags and improper hygiene practices, due to lack of proper facilities and the stigma surrounding menstruation, can increase chances of infections and other detrimental health complications.
The lack of adequate sanitation and disposal facilities also deprive women of a safe and private space to manage their menstrual hygiene. Such circumstances are one of the leading reasons for female absenteeism from schools and workplaces, even in developed nations.
In the southern region of Bangladesh, where cyclones and floods pay frequent visits, the water and sanitation situation is harrowing. The consequences of these catastrophes go beyond forcing inhabitants out of their homes. Strong winds and resulting tidal surges destroy and submerge homes, and destroy the water and sanitation facilities that are already in a pitiful state. Not only do menstrual products become more unattainable during disasters, but the contamination of water sources and prevalence of salinity, make using rags more difficult. Access to sanitation facilities, and their privacy is reduced. Such circumstances make the difficulties of being a woman more apparent.
To combat the financial constraints of poverty-stricken women in accessing menstrual products, reusable pads have been produced. Reusable pads are not only cost-efficient but also address the environmental implications of conventional sanitary napkins.
However, the contamination of water sources when flooded, the lack of fresh water during summer, and the prevalence of salinity throughout the year, raise concerns regarding the feasibility of reusable pads. Both, reusable pads and cloths require proper washing and drying before reusing. The water issue, compounded with the shame women feel, inhibits proper hygiene maintenance.
So, how do we ensure safe menstruation experiences for the women of climate-vulnerable regions?
As the detrimental impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent, it is crucial to recognize the disproportionate burden it places on females. Menstrual hygiene management must be magnified within the context of climate vulnerability, and its implications on the health and economic participation of women should be recognized.
Targeting menstrual hygiene management in disaster preparedness plans, investing in eco-friendly innovations, such as jute-based sanitary napkins, and ensuring access to these products by governments, businesses and other organizations is vital. Moreover, sustainable access to climate-resilient water and sanitation facilities must also be guaranteed.
With climate change exacerbating challenges of menstrual hygiene management, urgent action by policy-makers and implementers is needed to ensure the dignity, health, and well-being of females.
Parsa Musarrat is a researcher currently working at the SAJIDA Foundation in Dhaka.