Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis has slashed salaries, left hundreds of thousands of people without work and forced businesses to permanently close their doors.
The economy minister predicted in June that 60 percent of the population will be living in poverty by the end of the year.
The decimation of household incomes has also led to a rise in another, less visible form of destitution – period poverty.
Women and girls across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to afford the sanitary products they need to safely manage their periods due to rising prices and squeezed budgets, explained Line Masri.
Masri is the co-founder of Dawrati (my period in Arabic) – an initiative that collects and distributes donations of sanitary pads, panty liners and intimate wipes to women and girls in need.
The exact number of women and girls at risk in Lebanon is unknown, as there has so far been no comprehensive study on the issue in the country.
Internationally, non-governmental organization Plan International recently reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had restricted access to sanitary products across 30 countries due to rising prices, product shortages and limited healthcare services.
In Lebanon, while there are no studies on the matter yet, anecdotal evidence shows period poverty is “visibly increasing,” said Asma Kurdahi, the Lebanon Head of Office at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
A lack of education around periods means women and girls are more likely to turn to unsanitary, and potentially dangerous methods of coping with their periods when sanitary products are out of reach.
In recent months, Kurdahi has received increasing reports of women and girls using cardboard or scrunched-up newspaper as alternatives to pads.
“This really increases the risk of infection,” she warned. “Let alone the effect on a woman’s mental wellbeing.”
Brewing for months, but accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon’s economic downturn has been accompanied by the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese lira, destroying purchasing power and sending prices skyrocketing.
While sanitary products, like diapers and contraceptives, are exempt from value-added tax in Lebanon, costs continue to rise with inflation.
“The price of pads is getting really expensive – this is a new reality for a lot of women,” said Sara Abu Zaki, project manager at the Marsa Sexual Health Center in Beirut.
Maysan, a 40-year-old writer based in Beirut, said the pack of 8 pads she normally buys increased by 50 percent, from 3,000 Lebanese lira to 4,500 lira, in just two months.
For the moment, she is continuing to buy her preferred brand, but “if prices continue to rise, I might consider changing.”
Families with reduced income are now forced to prioritize how they spend their ever-tighter budgets. For some women and girls, Masri said, this means forgoing sanitary pads and tampons.
“People are rethinking their priorities,” she said. “They’ll say: ‘I need to feed my family, so I’ll just use some [tissues] instead.”
Aside from gathering and distributing donations of sanitary products, Dawrati is also trying to raise awareness of period poverty and convey the message that “sanitary products are as much of a necessity as rice or bread.”
In a recent assessment of more than 1,100 people living in vulnerable communities conducted by Plan International, 66 percent of adolescent Lebanese and Syrian refugee girls said they did not have the financial means to buy sanitary pads. Fifty-three percent of female caregivers said the same.
The report identified Syrian refugee girls as being the hardest hit by the economic crisis, making up more than two-thirds of girls who said they did not have access to sanitary supplies and more than half of those who said they could not afford them.
In the informal tented settlements where many of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees live, women and girls often do not have adequate washing facilities or the privacy they need to discreetly change their pads or wash stained clothes.
However, while those in the most precarious living situations face the most acute challenges when it comes to managing their periods every month, women and girls from all backgrounds have suddenly found themselves struggling to purchase the items they need.
Masri said she was shocked to receive phone calls from women who might be traditionally considered middle class, asking whether Dawrati can support them.
“A year ago, I probably would have been able to tell you certain areas in the country where women are suffering the most,” Masri said.
“But today, everyone is affected – women who lost their jobs, or women who have had their salaries halved.”
To discover the extent of period poverty in Lebanon and to assess menstrual hygiene practices, UNFPA has commissioned a first-of-its-kind assessment into issues that have so far been understudied.
“I hope that once we have this robust concrete data, we can launch a national campaign to raise awareness around menstrual hygiene and reach out to the government” to advocate for its inclusion in sectors like education and healthcare, Kurdahi said.
Tight budgets and rising prices aren’t the only causes of period poverty in Lebanon, however – the social stigma and taboo that surround the topic of menstruation also play a significant role.
“Period poverty is not just about access to commodities, but also about access to information and understanding your body,” Abu Zaki explained.
In Lebanese public schools there is no sexual health education and periods are only discussed from a biological perspective in science classes.
Girls are therefore left ill-equipped by their schools to safely and hygienically deal with their periods, which are often treated as something shameful or taboo.
In most local shops and pharmacies, cashiers hand over pads and tampons in black plastic bags to conceal their contents from the outside world.
Even health professionals, particularly in more conservative areas, are sometimes reluctant to speak about reproductive and sexual health with their female patients for fear of backlash from their communities, Abu Zaki said, drawing on her experience running workshops.
“No one talks about this issue, and we need to normalize it,” Kurdahi said, explaining that often, conversation around women’s health is focused on reproductive health or pregnancy.
In the future, all three contributors agreed that a more sustainable solution must be found to combat period poverty and reduce the use of unsanitary alternatives.
However, encouraging women to make the switch to reusable products such as washable pads or reusable menstrual cups would present new challenges.
“We’d love to be able to introduce this,” Masri said. “But it would require a huge amount of awareness raising to be accepted.”