Ensuring girls with disabilities have dignity when managing their periods

Have you considered the additional barriers girls with disabilities face to manage their periods?

By Kristel Juriloo (UNICEF ESA Disability Inclusion) and Kristine Hansen (UNICEF ESA Gender)
11 October 2021

Menstrual hygiene management and health (MHH) is still a taboo topic for many girls, especially girls with disabilities. Girls with disabilities are often seen as asexual and are rarely given information about their sexual and reproductive rights and how to manage their periods independently.

Rosalina and her teacher
Rosalina at the Side by Side Early Intervention and Education Center in Namibia together with Rochelle, one of her teachers who also has a disability.

Girls with physical impairments in their upper body and arms may have difficulties placing their sanitary protection materials in the correct position and washing themselves, their clothes, and the menstrual materials. Girls with vision impairments (blind or low vision) may face challenges knowing if they have fully cleaned themselves, and girls with intellectual and developmental impairments may need accessible and easy-to-read materials tailored to support them to communicate about pain and their needs and to learn about menstrual health and hygiene.

Most schools also lack adequate and accessible water and sanitation facilities, keeping many girls with disabilities out of school. The cost of sanitary pads and tampons is difficult for many families living in poverty, notwithstanding the fact that some girls with disabilities need more expensive products like period underwear to be able to manage their periods effectively.

In Namibia, UNICEF is helping girls like Rosalina to inform about menstrual hygiene management. As a young girl with a disability in her early teen years, the Side by Side Early Intervention and Education Center supports Rosalina’s mother to educate her on womanhood, how to care for her body, safety and protection and to be aware of her rights as a young woman.

In Ethiopia, UNICEF is working to include girls with disabilities in MHH programmes through supporting the Ministry of Health to develop a policy and implementation guideline that includes considerations for girls with disabilities. UNICEF is also supporting the Ministry of Health to develop and deliver a national Training of Trainers programme on MHH, in collaboration with Organizations of Persons with Disabilities, which includes a session on the needs of menstruators with disabilities. Hygiene clubs in schools, designed to share information on MHH, health and handwashing as well as to empower adolescents, have included girls with disabilities to participate in and lead activities in their schools.

Now I teach my family and friends around my house, I changed a lot! When I need, I get counselling, peer support and facilities, including pads.

– Student with a vision impairment, Ethiopia

UNICEF has also supported Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education in the development of a design and construction manual for water supply and sanitary facilities in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools with disability access considerations.

Hygiene clubs in schools in Ethiopia, designed to share information on MHH, health and handwashing as well as to empower adolescents, have included girls with disabilities to participate in and lead activities in their schools.

I like the club because there is awareness creation on hygiene, and I get sanitary pads. Outside schools having sanitary pads is difficult.

– Beti, girl with a hearing impairment, Ethiopia

Through the global project ‘WinS4Girls: Advocacy and Capacity Building for Menstrual Hygiene Management through Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Schools Programs' (WinS4Girls), UNICEF has partnered with organizations to produce education materials on menstrual hygiene, school safety and child rights, including in alternative formats for children with visual and hearing disabilities.  

In 2020, UNICEF launched the Oky period tracker app for girls, co-created by girls, which has been piloted in Indonesia and Mongolia, and is now being rolled out in Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania. Oky provides girls with information about their periods in fun, creative and positive ways, delivered straight into their hands through mobile phones and it has a read-out functionality so girls with lower levels of literacy or vision impairment can obtain reliable menstrual health information and successfully track their periods.

In 2021, UNICEF developed a tip-sheet (PDF) for supporting and identifying practical entry points for meeting the needs and priorities of menstruators with disabilities. One key entry point is to partner with women and girls with disabilities and organizations of persons with disabilities throughout the cycle of MHH programming. Specifically, MHH programming needs to:

  1. Combat stigma and discrimination by applying approaches of social and behavior change communication.
  2. Provide access to accurate and timely information.
  3. Provide safe, private, reliable infrastructure and supplies, including accessible transportation.
  4. Provide access to affordable and appropriate sanitary protection materials.

UNICEF is committed to ensure girls with disabilities receive information and services for managing their periods in dignity, but more effort needs to be put into reaching girls with disabilities with our MHH programming.