Menstruation Matters in Emergencies

UNICEF is working closely with partners such as PKBI and the national and local government to effectively scale up Water, Sanitation and Hygiene interventions after the earthquakes in Lombok, Indonesia.

Lely Djuhari
Teacher in SMPN 1 Tanjung Lombok
Wilander/UNICEF/2018

01 February 2019

Kadek Aristi Widhiari recounted the last time she had her period. The 14-year-old girl had just experienced one of the hardest month in her life when a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck her home town in Tanjung on Lombok and forced her and her family to live in a temporary shelter. She remembered pain at the onset of her menstruation but also frustration and a sense of helplessness.

“I wasn’t able to go to a nearby shop to buy my usual disposable sanitary napkin. None of the shops were open after the earthquake,” she told a focus group discussion held at her Junior High School SMPN 1 Tanjung.

Undeterred, she tore up her baby sister’s diapers and used that instead. She heard other girls’ stories who said they asked their mothers to help them use cloth sanitary napkins, which had gone out of style in Lombok for many years. One girl said she agonized whether to wash her soiled napkins free from blood using precious drinking water as tap water became unavailable. Washing napkins before wrapping them up and discarding them is a tradition in Indonesia.

A UNICEF-supported facilitator Stefani Rahardini gently encouraged girls to open up during the 1 hour-discussion. She said that the girls had a relatively good knowledge of what menstruation is but their habits which a month ago were harmless now – such as washing soiled napkins, taboos such as not eating cucumbers or drinking ice water -  have now became barriers to going to school.

“It’s hard enough to go back to school when the classrooms have been damaged and parents still fear sending their children because of aftershocks,” she said. “A natural and regular cycle of menstruation should not be a cause of more missed days of schooling.”

Stefani also conducted another focus group discussion with a group of female teachers to hear about their knowledge of menstruation as well as how often they spoke about how to overcome their female students fears in managing their cycle.

Only few Indonesian schools conduct talks with their students around this issue. Some schools sell disposable pads in the school shops but few have proper closed rubbish bins to dispose of them. UNICEF is supporting an emergency response in Lombok by providing sanitation facilities and educational resources for all earthquake affected schools and encouraging the community support girls need to stay in school and to feel good about their bodies and themselves.

“It’s hard enough to go back to school when the classrooms have been damaged and parents still fear sending their children because of aftershocks,” she said. “A natural and regular cycle of menstruation should not be a cause of more missed days of schooling.”

Girls in SMP Negeri 1 Tanjung Lombok
©Wilander/UNICEF/2018
Girls during Menstrual Hygiene activity in SMP Negeri 1 Tanjung Lombok supported by UNICEF Indonesia

UNICEF is working closely with partners such as PKBI and the national and local government to effectively scale up Water, Sanitation and Hygiene interventions after the earthquakes. This means temporary toilets, provision of clean water, getting rid of solid waste safely but also coordination, information management on who does what, where and when.

No less important is capacity building on hygiene promotion through the local health office, health clinics, schools and volunteers called health cadres, including on Menstrual Hygiene Management.

Stefanie says increasing awareness is a start.

“The female teachers themselves were not aware that the girls were facing difficulties. It’s not something that they will go to a female teacher and let alone male ones,” she said.

UNICEF will also work with partners to distribute hygiene and dignity kits to affected families including soap, toilets, towels, a bucket and underwear. An assessment is also undergoing to see if cash in emergencies will work well on Lombok Island. A small stipend will be given to vulnerable groups so that families will be able to buy for themselves including girls who want to choose for themselves the size, type of underwear and sanitary pad of their choice.

“I am glad that I can now get my own sanitary napkins in the school shop,” Kadek said. But she said she still fears her male classmates. Sometimes, they rummage in her schoolbag, and on finding a sanitary napkin will show it to the entire class and mock her.

“We’ve had so many problems what with the earthquakes and all. This is very childish but I’ll find girls who help me can stand up to those boys. We’ll do it,” Kadek said with resolve.