Around half of the world’s population menstruate every month, yet the absurd reality is that 500 million of them are living in period poverty. When speaking of period poverty, we mean an insufficient menstrual hygiene management, which goes from a lack of access to sanitary products to poor education around the subject.
Lebanon is not unfamiliar to period poverty, since the matter in question is in fact widespread globally. For instance, in the documentary Period. End of Sentence, we see how women living in rural India have to fight daily against the stigma surrounding menstruation. Not only are sanitary products, particularly dispensable pads, expensive and hard to have access to, but also the lack of education around the subject is a burden women have to carry. They constantly feel pressured and judged around men, especially because periods are often considered to be “illnesses”. Moreover, the deficient level of education around period products added to their inaccessibility, necessarily leads to hazardous situations, where women use “whatever cloth they can find” instead of appropriate products. As one of the girls mentioned in the documentary, a patriarchal system makes it harder for women to start a discourse around these issues.
The same rooted taboo around menstruation is present in Lebanon. It usually depicts women menstruating as impure, sinful and even dirty. Many elements come at play in perpetuating this misconception. As aforementioned, patriarchal societies reinforce period shaming. Besides, the cultural and religious ideologies embedded in Lebanese people’s daily lives also contribute in standardizing the stigma around periods. The latter is partly shown by the fact that Lebanese public schools do not include sexual health education, but rather partly approach it through a biological lens in science classes. The psychosexologist Sandrine Atallah even confirms in a recent episode of the emerging podcast سردة (after dinner) that even in biology classes, the subject of menstruation isn’t addressed as clearly and properly as it should.
Period poverty had already gained momentum with the unprecedented economic crisis that hit Lebanon, and the situation drastically worsened after the Beirut blast which affected hundreds of thousands. The prices in supermarkets and pharmacies have skyrocketed, making sanitary products even less accessible to the lower class than they were before. There have in fact been increasing reports of women using “cardboard or scrunched-up newspaper as alternatives to pads.” Period poverty seems to have even reached Lebanon’s middle-class, with many women asking for help from the association Dawrati which distributes kits supplying a box of period pads, a box of panty liners and a box of wipes. As the co-founder of Dawrati asserted, “today, everyone is affected – women who lost their jobs, or women who have had their salaries halved.” With the disastrous aftermath of the explosion, effective initiatives have been taken to help with the disaster relief. As a matter of fact, Dawrati was able to immensely contribute through its collaborations with different organizations and companies. For instance, by partnering with Nana Arabia, 2 million pads will be donated. Dawrati as well as Jeyetik, an association created after the events of August 4th in order to help collecting and distributing sanitary products, have also been working closely with kooyrigs, an Armenian based organization, which has been helping out by donating period kits including pads and pain medication to Lebanon.
It is also important to note that the women in the Syrian refugee camps, who already have to manage with difficult routines, are affected by period poverty. Tania Safi’s Turning Periods Into Pathways which was filmed in 2019 reveals to the public how refugees have to live off an average of under 2.87 dollars a day while having no access to hygiene products such as pads, underwear, clean water and safe toilets.
To provide help and awareness to these women and young girls, members of the Days for Girls (DFG) association are on the ground, distributing kits comprising two washable pads, eight spare liners, two pairs of underwear, a cycle calendar, a washcloth and a bar of soap. By partnering with The Women Charity League in Bebnine, they are able to organize awareness sessions where they make sure to spread safe information about periods, sex, and self-defense. The conditions the refugees have to live under when displaced are indeed more than often unsafe. Combined with the shame surrounding the topic of periods, it becomes increasingly difficult for some to find private spaces to change. As one of the teenagers affirmed, “the walls that make the tents and separate them are normally just blankets, plastic sheeting and transparent. Someone from the outside can see you in there; if you undressed or don’t have your veil on, someone can see you…” Providing products and safe education is thus essential to minimize the hardships they regularly have to go through.
Menstrual hygiene management has never faced as many challenges in Lebanon as it does today. The unaffordable sanitary products, added to the lack of sexual health education and unsafe facilities some have to deal with, show how necessary it is to make hygiene products accessible to everyone. There is still nevertheless a lingering stigma around the subject, and no actions seem to be taken by the more powerful. At the beginning of July, a meeting held in the Grand Serail to approve a basket of over 300 subsidized goods, left out the basic necessities that are pads, and instead decided to include men’s razors. This choice directly reflects how a patriarchal system marginalizes women’s lives. By excluding hygienic products, women’s struggle to buy everyday necessities is more challenging than ever before, particularly with their purchasing power significantly reduced. This choice represents a failure to sort out priorities, and once again a failure of men acknowledging women’s basic human needs.