Displaced adolescent girls bear the brunt of funding cuts for menstrual hygiene
“It’s difficult,” says 19-year old Zaw Mar Luu very shyly. This is an issue often not spoken about in IDP camps. “Usually I keep my used sanitary pads in a plastic bag until the garbage truck comes to collect from the main waste bin. But it only comes once a week” she adds.
Zaw Mar Luu got her first period in 2012, shortly after the decades-long conflict in Kachin forced her family to flee their village and seek refuge at the Tha Ye Taw camp, which now houses more than 500 people.
Like Zaw Mar Luu, every single month, women and adolescent girls living in camps for displaced people across Myanmar struggle to get through their periods safely and with dignity.
For many, the major issue is that they are not supported with a supply of disposable sanitary pads. It means they have to find ways to buy their sanitary pads in the nearby shops. When they don’t have money, they borrow from their neighbours or get in debt with the local shops. This impacts on their income and education opportunities.
For others, the concern is the lack of privacy to change in their small makeshift shelters, which often house up to six people and have no partitions. They face risks each time they seek out hideaways to change their sanitary pads, particularly at night.
To add to the burden, private spaces to wash and dry reusable pads and cloths napkins are scarce forcing women and girls to use communal bathing and washing areas. During the heavy rainy seasons, it is also difficult for reusable pads and cloths to dry properly which can lead to infection.
There are big funding gaps for menstrual hygiene management, and women and girls struggle to afford disposable sanitary pads
In recent years, Myanmar’s protracted crisis has seen funding for humanitarian assistance steadily decrease and humanitarian access to displaced communities in need of assistance has become harder in both government and non-government controlled areas. In Kachin alone over 91,000 people have been displaced by the violence, with renewed conflict in recent weeks displacing over 5,000 people. Countrywide, the number reaches over 245,000.
Even though around one third of Myanmar’s overall displaced population are women and adolescent girls of menstruating age, there are big funding gaps for menstrual hygiene management support, explains Sunny Guidotti, who coordinates the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) humanitarian response in Myanmar.
This is especially acute in Kachin State where organisations report reaching, last year, only one third of the women and girls likely to use sanitary pads.
“A few years ago there were more regular distributions of hygiene kits, which include menstrual hygiene items. While these are still happening regularly in other parts of the country, in Kachin we have seen a decrease, particularly in the non-government controlled areas.” said Sunny.
In Tha Ye Taw camp, for example, up until 2016, aid packages included disposable sanitary pads. But not anymore explains 17-year old Sandar Tun. Like Zaw Mar Luu, she has been living here since fleeing her home in 2012.
As the eldest in her family, this young woman carries the burden of earning an income to support her younger siblings. She struggles to make ends meet, working at sharpening raw amber to supply local jewellery producers.
“I left school in the 5th grade and I want my younger siblings to have better chances, so I do everything that I can to take care of their school fees,” she says.
Like most women and adolescent girls living in camps across Kachin, Sandar struggles to afford disposable sanitary pads most months. This essential item is often simply out of reach and without them she finds it difficult to attend work during her period.
Many other displaced women and adolescent girls told Sunny and her team, during a recent visit to Kachin, that they preferred using disposable sanitary pads. However without distributions of sanitary pads, they explained that they were getting into debt with shops or their neighbours.
More needs to be done
The WASH Cluster led by UNICEF are advocating for more investment to support Menstrual Hygiene Management in camps.
Organizations are defying the limited resources by trying out different strategies to reach as many women and girls as possible. “With last year’s gaps, we are starting to target those most in need and look at more cost-effective interventions to make sure that women and girls have access to minimum items such as sanitary pads, underwear and soap on a regular basis, but more funds are needed for Kachin,” Sunny says.
In addition to these essential items, building bathing houses and latrines that guarantee enough privacy is key. Installing lighting not only in the latrines but across the camp and adapting the design of the shelters and the schools so women and girls have private spaces are all important measures too. Sunny explains that the WASH cluster joined forces with Protection and now Education, Health and Shelter colleagues for a more holistic menstrual hygiene management response. She is also collaborating with the Cash Working Group Lead.
A lucky day
Today is a lucky day for both Sandar Tun and and Zaw Mar Luu. In one go they are getting disposable sanitary pads and underwear, and also got to learn more about menstrual hygiene.
“My mom and aunts told me a little bit, but I had never heard most of the information that is shared with us here,” said Zaw Mar Luu
To support women and girls, organisations helping with WASH also offer awareness sessions once or twice a month in Kachin. In addition to the practicalities of how to use and dispose of sanitary pads and the hygiene to maintain during the period, they discuss in detail the menstrual cycle and how it may impact women’s bodies and feelings.
Embarrassed to discuss their menstrual cycle, these awareness sessions are often the only time that many women and girls openly talk about the issues that they face. “Sometimes the pains are so strong during my period that I have difficulty working. But my father gets upset and forces me to work. He doesn’t understand,” said Sandar Tun. “Now I realize I am not the only one”.
Apart from giving them important information that allows women and girls to get through their period each month safely and with dignity, the awareness sessions are also an opportunity for the community to identify simple steps that they can take to improve the situation.
During the recent session at Tha Ye Taw camp, the community discussed the possibility of setting up a system where bins for sanitary pads would be put inside the latrines for more privacy when disposing of them. They discussed how they could organize the collection from the latrine bins to the main disposal bins where the truck picks up waste weekly. There is still a long way to go before this is done, but the conversation has started.