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Period Poverty in the Climate Crisis: A Case Study on the Pakistan Floods

The floods in Pakistan last year have proved, once again, that the climate crisis is not 'gender neutral' [1], meaning that gender inequality and climate change are intrinsically linked. Women are disproportionately affected by climate related risks compared to men, including the furthering of gender inequalities that already exist in society and other concerns such as threats to their 'livelihoods, health and safety'. Especially in the developing world, women are more reliant on agriculture as an important source of employment and food. During lengthy periods of drought and rainfall, women are forced to work even harden for their families and livelihoods and girls may also be compelled to drop out of school to support their families.


A significant yet overlooked impact of climate-related risks is period poverty. Globally, 3.5 billion women and girls have periods monthly and out of this approximately 500 million experience period poverty [2].


[Image from Al Jazeera]


Period Poverty


When people who are menstruating do not have access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene, education, toilets, hand washing facilities and waste management, they experience the phenomenon of period poverty [3]. Although menstruation is a biological process, period poverty is seen as social, negatively impacting self-dignity, self-confidence and self-worth. Keeping and continuing menstrual hygiene becomes extremely difficult in the developing world where only 27% of the population own adequate hand-washing and waste management facilities [4]. Research also illustrates how women of colour and those from lower-income populations experience period poverty at a higher rate than white women and women from higher income backgrounds.


Contrary to popular and mistaken beliefs, periods do not stop during climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts and wildfires. In fact, 26 million (30%) of those displaced (82 million) by such disasters are women and girls [5], a small percentage of which have their menstrual needs met in refugee camps. Such situations can lead to physical impacts such as dangerous infections and bloodstains, along with emotional ones such as feelings of embarrassment and isolation.


Consequently, they are forced to 'be creative with their periods' and improvise other methods which tend to be ineffective, uncomfortable and unhygienic, to manage their periods utilising torn pieces of clothing, rags, dirty rugs or sitting on old tin cans [6].


The Pakistan Floods...


The Pakistan floods in 2022 was one of the largest climate-related concerns of the year [7]. Although the country has been plagued by floods and water disasters over the last two decades, these floods have been the most perilous with over one-fifth of the country's population being severely impacted [8]. There have been 1,500 deaths so far and 16 million children have been affected [9]. Heavy monsoon rains in the country have led to devastating rains, floods and landslides. Furthermore, banks and dams have been breached along some of the major rivers in the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, along with the administrative unit of Gilgit-Baltistan, destroying homes, farms and important infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools and public health facilities. Damage to water supply systems have resulted in millions of people no longer having access to safe drinking water and, as a result, bearing fatal water borne diseases.


...and Periods


Unfortunately, for those who menstruate, the impact of the 2022 floods have been even worse. Of the 33 million people affected altogether, over 8 million women have had to resort to desperate measures, including tree leaves, to manage their periods [10]. In September, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif stated that the country was 'grappling with food shortages', a concern that was being provided for by relief organisations. Despite period products also being a necessity, they were not targeted as essential items, something which is the result of menstruation being perceived as a 'stigma' in the country.


Pakistan has a long history of period poverty, with menstruation, like many other parts of the world, being seen as shameful and thus ostracised. Due to the cultural attitude that menstruation women are impure and dirty, many are are denied adequate education on reproductive health and how to manage their periods. In 2017, U-Report found that 49% of young women in Pakistan had little to no knowledge of periods before their first one [11]. Furthermore, only 20% of young women learn about the topic in schools.


[Image from The Oxford Blue]


Overall, the fact that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change gives a morbid view of gender equality. Whether it be period poverty, access to information and working within the agricultural sector, it is evident that women and climate change cannot be separated and that they face the brunt of the crisis. Due to difference in information mobilisation, decision-making and inequalities in access to resources and healthcare services amongst the poorest, women and girls are less likely to survive climate change disasters [12].


However, it is recognised by worldwide organisations and individuals that climate change is not gender neutral, and as a result effort has been and is being put into supporting women and girls. Even local organisations are working to support women. In the context of the Pakistan floods and period poverty, here are two organisations helping the women that are affected.


HER Pakistan is a youth and women led organisation that uses education and advocacy to teach individuals about menstruation. Founded in 2018, the aim is to ensure that women and girls have access to quality menstrual health education and products. So far, during the floods, the organisation has handed out more than 7,000 menstrual kits, while also partnering with volunteers and activists to provide other essentials (such as food, shelter and clothing).


Another organisation is Mahwari Justice. Meaning ‘period’ in Urdu, Mahwari Justice is a student- led grassroots organisation working to tackle the stigma, along with working to distribute menstrual hygiene kits (including sanitary pads, soap, detergent and underwear) to those affected by the disaster. The organisation also supports a minimisation of carbon footprint by advocating for more sustainable period options.


Written by Harkiran Bharij, Thrive Research Hub Member



References

[1] UN Women, 'Explainer: How gender inequality and climate change are interconnected'

[2] The Daily Universe, ''Period Poverty' affects millions of women, girls globally'

[3] Global Citizen, 'Period Poverty: Everything You Need to Know'

[4] Global Citizen, '2.3 Billion People Don't Have Access to Basic Sanitation: Report'

[5] WarnerMedia, 'Tackling Period Poverty and Inequality in the World'

[6] ActionAid UK, 'Periods in humanitarian disasters'

[7] UNICEF, 'Devastating floods in Pakistan'

[8] Samaa, 'Humanitarian Crisis: Deadly floods claim over 1,000 lives, affects fifth of Pakistan'

[9] The Guardian, ''It is beyond bleak': Pakistan floods affecting 16m children, says UNICEF'

[10] UNICEF, 'Devastating floods in Pakistan'

[11] The Borgen Project, 'Combating Period Poverty in Pakistan'

[12] UN Women, 'Explainer: How gender equality and climate change are interconnected'

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