- World Menstrual Hygiene Day finds SL’s women in tough position
Every day across the world, around 800 million girls and women (including transgender people) of reproductive age menstruate. This is a universal biological reality, yet for many people it is surrounded by taboo and is linked to increased vulnerability.
In 2014, the international community chose 28 May as World Menstrual Hygiene Day, an annual day dedicated to menstrual health and hygiene. The aim is to break the silence around this topic and shine a spotlight on it. While originally, the day was used to lobby decision-makers to improve sanitary provisions in schools to ensure that periods would not disrupt girls’ education or prevent them from participating or continuing to attend school, over time, 28 May has become an opportunity to tackle broader issues linked to menstrual health and hygiene.
In our own country, the cost of sanitary napkins have increased by 75% over the last 10 months, and according to studies, over 50% of women in Sri Lanka cannot afford them. As we commemorate World Menstrual Hygiene Day, we must highlight the natural phenomenon that is menstruation and help combat the taboos, prohibitions, shame, and stigmatisation that are associated with menstruation all over the world, as menstruation is an issue that concerns health, rights, dignity, equality, and safety.
Defending these rights enables girls, women, and transgender people to fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, as well as their right to human dignity, health, water, and sanitation, and even education. Difficulty accessing quality period products and safe places to change them has an impact on many aspects of the lives of women, girls, and transgender people, and prevents them from participating fully in certain areas of economic, social, and family life. Missing school, being absent from work, or having to leave home when they have their periods are also obstacles to equality between women and men because it reinforces the view that women and girls have less claim to public spaces.
The impact of heavy prices
Currently, 52% of Sri Lanka’s population is female, with approximately 5.7 million menstruating women. However, for many Sri Lankan women, access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products has become a luxury. Period poverty affects women, girls, and people who menstruate all over the world. Access to menstrual products, safe and hygienic spaces in which to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma is essential for anyone who menstruates. But for many, this is not a reality. This is not just a potential health risk – it can also affect people’s education and wellbeing, and sometimes their entire lives.
The “Taxing Menstrual Hygiene Products in Sri Lanka: A policy analysis” study reveals that over 50% of women in Sri Lanka experience period poverty, indicating that more than half of all households with women of menstruating age do not report spending any money on sanitary napkins. This is concerningly large number that points towards the financial burden of many citizens of our country who are forced to set aside their hygiene and wellness in order to afford other basic necessities like food and shelter. This study also highlighted that, at present, sanitary products in Sri Lanka are taxed at 52%, making pads and other menstrual hygiene products unaffordable for women in low-income groups of society.
With so many issues surrounding menstruation – and the most pressing one being period poverty – many organisations have taken it upon themselves to come up with sustainable solutions to this issue. The Arka Initiative is a response to the need for tangible and practical support on issues about sexual and reproductive health in Sri Lanka. Under one of its programmes, the initiative began manufacturing their own brand of pads – Adithi by Arka. Adithi’s model is to make sanitary napkins available and accessible to women in the grassroots while empowering them. With the help of the community, they aim to have the cheapest pad in the market.
In conversation with Brunch, The Arka Initiative Head of Operations Dilki Wijeyesekera highlighted that labour salaries haven’t increased recently and small businesses are finding it difficult to sustain women, which puts women in a position where they may not be able to access basic needs, which will affect women who are menstruating.
She also explained that in line with this issue, initially, their production plan would be small-scale, reaching the community the factory is based in and in areas around Colombo that need more accessible cheaper options, after which they then plan on producing 20,000-30,000 pads.
Free to Flow is another much-needed initiative that aims to distribute reusable sanitary napkins to girls and women between the ages of 15 to 40 in low-income households across the country. Malsha Kumaranatunge, the lady behind this, truly hopes to end period poverty in Sri Lanka. Kumaranatunge told us that the pads they’ve created are reusable and will be distributed to women from low-income communities.
“They feature reusable cotton holders that clip onto underwear, and flannel pieces which form the absorbent piece of the pad. These flannel pieces can be washed and reused for about one-and-a-half years,” she added.
She also pointed out that most commercial pads right now are very expensive and treated as a luxury import, which means women pay a tax of 53% on each pack of pads that they buy.
“The prices of these pads range from Rs. 500-900, and since a pad has to be changed every four hours for risk of infection, one woman uses between two and three packs per menstrual cycle, which translate to a significant expense, especially for daily workers and for households with more than one woman,” she noted.
The second phase of Free to Flow involves devising a period cup – a menstrual health tool that is reusable for up to five years. “We’re hoping to encourage women who have already had children or who are past a certain age to use the period cup, but we have to approach it very carefully, given the mindsets, and also make sure people are comfortable with the idea,” she revealed.
Currently, with many brands of pads not being available in the market, or being way too expensive for women that could go through one packet in a few days, sanitary napkins are becoming more and more redundant. For this reason, many women have been looking at alternatives like the menstrual cup, which may be expensive in the short term but can be used for years. If Sri Lanka can break the stigma around menstruation, most women believe that they will have better access to menstrual products like the cup or even tampons. While women in Colombo seem to be making the switch from pads to the cup, we can only hope that this opens up doors and shuts down the sigma that has taken over the rest of the country.