Periods in the pandemic: 9 things we need to know

COVID-19 is having a global impact on menstrual health and hygiene.

Menstrual health in Rwanda: A supply distributor handing out new packages of menstrual pads to a girl
31 August 2020

Lockdowns, closed borders, shuttered businesses – the coronavirus pandemic is having far-reaching consequences for many people. One of these impacts is on everyone who menstruates.

Here are 9 facts from UNICEF and UNFPA about periods in the pandemic:

1. Menstruation is not a sign of COVID-19

Having periods is healthy and normal. It is not a sign of illness.

But there are many myths surrounding menstruation and COVID-19 circulating around the world, such as menstruation is a symptom of COVID-19 and menstruating people are more likely to infect others.

Such myths have no medical explanation but can increase the stigma of menstruation.

2. Menstrual supplies are essential items

Economic disruptions can lead to women and girls losing access to hygiene products. These include sanitary pads and tampons, menstrual cups, reusable napkins, pain medication and soap.

Essential hygiene products are a priority for the health, dignity and welfare of all people who menstruate.

Decision-makers must ensure these items be declared essential and remain available. When menstruation-related supplies are deemed essential, it sends a clear message: essential hygiene products are a priority for the health, dignity and welfare of all people who menstruate.  

3. People in health care facilities do not have easy access to menstrual hygiene products

It is difficult for patients in hospitals and in quarantine to obtain menstrual hygiene products. Facility managers must address this potential loss of access by ensuring adequate supplies, and staff need to be trained to sensitively meet these needs.

4. Health workers, like everyone else, need menstrual health supplies

Around 70 per cent of healthcare workers are women. To effectively respond to the pandemic, they work long hours under intense pressure. Not only do they need access to menstrual hygiene materials, but also the time and the resources to manage their menstrual health.

This is particularly true for front-line health workers who wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Putting on and removing PPE prevents the quick changing of menstrual hygiene materials, leading women to bleed into protective suits, suppress menstruation through the use of oral contraceptive pills, or potentially miss days of work.

5. Poverty makes it harder to access menstrual hygiene supplies and care 

People living in poverty already face barriers to obtaining menstrual hygiene supplies and related health services. With stores and public transport closing, rising costs and increasing economic uncertainty, they are now facing even bigger hurdles. There have even been reports of women forced to prioritize food and water over personal care items. 

During the pandemic, the vulnerability of people living in extreme poverty and crisis settings is increasing, while access to sexual and reproductive health services and information is decreasing. 

6. COVID-19 threatens the rights and health of vulnerable people who menstruate

Gender inequality, extreme poverty, humanitarian crises and harmful traditions can turn periods  into a time of deprivation and stigma. These vulnerabilities are only increasing under the pandemic, as access to sexual and reproductive health services and information are decreasing.

Circumstances are equally fraught for people with disabilities, people in prisons, refugee and migrant women and shelter residents, all of whom may face shortages and reduced privacy under lockdown.

7. Preventing COVID-19 goes hand-in-hand with good menstrual hygiene

Providing water, sanitation and hygiene services to people in displacement camps, informal settlements and impoverished communities contributes to the larger pandemic response. While these services are more important now, they are also threatened more than ever. 

These communities are now facing shortages of soap, cleaning materials and maintenance staff. All of this will adversely impact both the COVID-19 response and the health and rights of people who menstruate.  

8. Information about menstrual health and hygiene is hard to come by in the pandemic 

As education and health services have been disrupted, so has the flow of basic information about menstrual health and hygiene. More than ever, we must find new, creative ways to educate people about menstruation – to dispel rumours and spread positive, accurate information about menstruation, both to raise awareness and to end stigma and shame. 

9. Harmful menstruation traditions leave people vulnerable to the pandemic 

Some traditions hold that menstruating people should be sent to a ‘menstrual hut’, or to a relative’s home, which could affect a menstruating person’s ability to engage in physical distancing. Other harmful traditions prohibit people from washing or touching their genitals while menstruating. Some say that menstruating people can pollute water sources or toilets.

Even in normal circumstances, menstrual taboos and traditions lead to exclusion and vulnerability. Under the pandemic, these traditions could affect people’s ability to protect themselves against COVID-19 and worsen the situation. 

How we’re responding

Graphic displaying the Oky period tracker app interface
The Oky period tracker app helps girls track their periods and learn the facts about menstruation.

UNICEF, UNFPA and partners are on the ground supplying menstrual hygiene supplies and ensuring safe environments during the COVID-19 response. These efforts include:  

Providing hygiene kits and sanitary products to children, families and front-line workers, including in detention centres, correctional institutions, domestic violence shelters, health centres, residential care homes and quarantine facilities.

Dispelling myths and providing accurate information about menstrual health and COVID-19.

UNFPA has launched videos on topics from helping parents to provide menstrual health information to their children, to teaching people to make their own reusable menstrual products.

UNICEF’s Oky period tracker app provides girls with child-friendly menstruation content, a cycle tracking function and COVID-19 information.  

This article is a joint collaboration between UNICEF and UNFPA, lead agencies in the effort to ensure the health and rights of all people who menstruate. See a version of this article on UNFPA’s website.

This article was originally published on 27 May 2020. It was last updated on 31 August 2020.

UNICEF's guidance on menstrual health and hygiene during COVID-19