When menstruation is taboo, Myanmar’s women stranded in quarantine without pads

Photo: Covid-19 Fundraising for Sanitary Pads / Facebook
Photo: Covid-19 Fundraising for Sanitary Pads / Facebook

A few weeks after a bad cold developed into a headache and then a complete loss of smell, Htet took a COVID-19 test at the Ayeyarwady Quarantine Center in Thingangyun. She was told to pack a small bag of essential items “just in case.” When the results came back positive, she was moved into a room where she’d spend the next 11 days.

Although she had packed enough clothing and basic toiletries, it didn’t occur to her to pack any menstrual supplies. And in spite of the center — one of the newer ones in the city — providing an abundance of “essential items” to patients, they didn’t have any menstrual supplies in stock either.

“They don’t give pads here,” 34-year-old Htet said. “You have to ask someone from home to send them. We have a lot of other supplies. For example, we have boxes of Dettol soap and tissues and stuff like that. But we’re not given any pads.”

What would someone do without anyone outside to help? “You kind of just ask each other and try to help each other out,” she said.

An online survey conducted by Plan International for professionals in the sexual reproductive health rights in 24 countries, including Myanmar, found 81% of respondents were “concerned people who menstruate would not be supported to meet their menstrual hygiene management needs,” and 75% feared that “COVID-19 may pose increased health risks for people who menstruate, as resources, such as water, are diverted to other needs.”

Daw Hnin Pone Kyein oversees three quarantine centers in Mingalar Taungnyunt Township, all of which are makeshift locations opened almost overnight: Thein Phyu Boxing Stadium, and BEHS (Basic Education High School) Nos. 1 and 4. In a recent interview, she estimated that across all three locations, there were approximately 280 patients, about 60 of which were women. She also admitted that while they have received donations and purchased items for patients to use, it didn’t occur to staff members themselves to stock pads, nor had they received any as donations — that is, until one local gender equality activist began a fundraiser specifically to distribute menstrual supplies to quarantine centers across the city.

It began when Khin Su, 25, received a text from her uncle. It was an article highlighting the need for menstruation supplies in the local quarantine centers. Due to her background in gender rights activism, he’d assumed that she was already aware of the issue, if not already involved in addressing the problem. In fact, Khin actually hadn’t seen the article, but once she did, she noticed that there wasn’t really any information on how people could help.

“I already work a lot in this gender space, so already I am the type of person that is very much an advocate for dispelling taboos around menstruation, talking about menstruation openly, and making sure that women and girls have access to information about menstruation and having no shame around those topics,” she said. “It just kind of fell into my lap – my uncle has connections to suppliers, so I can get it at wholesale price.”

Khin began crunching numbers. She wanted to provide a three months’ supply of pads, estimating that one woman uses 20 pads during one period cycle. After getting a headcount of the number of women at various quarantine centers around Yangon, Khin calculated that she would need to purchase 180,000 pads. But as she did more research, she found another article highlighting similar issues at the camps in Rakhine state, where supplies were already scarce even before COVID-related restrictions came into place. After taking into account the those camp numbers as well, Khin arrived at her final target number: 1,980,000 pads.

“So it was a lot!” she said, laughing.

In Myanmar, and particularly Yangon, there seem to be two main factors for why menstruation supplies are in such short supply at quarantine facilities. One is simple ignorance.

“Even as a woman, I wouldn’t have thought to donate pads,” Khin said when she was formulating the idea for the campaign.

While most quarantine centers allow patients to receive items from family and friends, understaffing issues might mean that patients don’t actually get the items on the same day that they’re dropped off.

“When you ask your family to come and send [pads], depending on their time and their schedule, it might not be immediately available to you. And this is not something that cannot be not immediately available to you, you know? It’s not like, ‘Oh I’m craving a little ice-cream.’”

Daw Hnin Pone Kyein noted that some women may find themselves without a lifeline.

“In some cases, when their entire household has been moved to quarantine centers, [these women] don’t have anyone back home to ask to deliver supplies,” she said.

The other reason is the strong cultural taboo around menstruation that is still prevalent, even during a worldwide medical pandemic. Different quarantine center overseers I spoke with guessed that donors might be “embarrassed” to donate pads or other menstruation-related supplies.

Earlier this year, another gender equality activist, Nandar, started the Menstruation Is Not Shameful campaign. While she received a lot of positive feedback from the 500,000-plus participants, there were also those who deemed it unnecessary and a “public insult.”

“One man said, ‘Getting your period is the same as shitting — it’s embarrassing. No matter how natural it is, you don’t need to talk about it, you don’t need to campaign for it,’” she said. “Another one said, ‘I accept that periods are a natural occurrence, but women getting their periods is similar to men getting sexually aroused. And regardless of how natural [male] arousal is, it’s not something that needs to be discussed in public.’”

Late last month, the campaign said it had raised MMK9.6 million (US$7,400), purchased 151,000 pads and distributed 89,000 so far.

Talking about her own experiences purchasing pads as a young woman, Khin recalled the shame attached to it.

“It’s taught to be something that we have to hide away,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh people shouldn’t know that we’re menstruating.’”

Phyu, 23, and her mom were housed at the Fortune Plaza quarantine center in Thaketa for two weeks. It was just her father and brother back home, and so while they asked for clothing and other necessities from the house, when her period came, Phyu instead contacted a close female friend to purchase and drop off some pads for her.

And then there’s the “problem” of what to do when the only medical staff you come in contact with are all men.

For example, due to being heavily understaffed, a lot of makeshift quarantine centers rely almost entirely on volunteer work, which she found were almost entirely male.

“And the female patients were embarrassed to tell these men [that they needed pads]. Finally they managed to get in contact with us, and I asked them what the problem was, and they said that either they were on their period or maybe it was because they were anxious, given the situation, and their period had returned after they’d already gotten it, and they didn’t know what to do,” she said.

“We just bought the supplies ourselves outside with our own money. We’d ask ‘Is one package enough?’ and they’d say ‘Yes’ and we’d tell them to tell us if it wasn’t enough and if so, we could buy more for them,” she added.

She said they would wrap the packages carefully and not tell the male volunteers carrying them in what was inside.

Daw Hnin Pone Kyein said that now they’re very grateful for the campaign’s donations.

“We’d only buy exactly as many [pads] as was needed, we didn’t have any extra in stock,” she said. “We only have extra supplies now that someone’s made a donation.”

There’s no telling when pandemic conditions will ease, and Khin is already planning on another round of donations if the quarantine centers remain operating, even after December.

She sees its goals as going beyond pandemic relief.

“The next long-term vision for me is to kind of make this a long-term campaign, and to continue to provide pads even if the quarantine centers are closed,” she said. “There are still areas in Myanmar where access to women’s hygienic products and sanitary products are difficult [due to] lack of access, and there’s also a lot of shame and taboos around it.”

More information about the COVID-19 Sanitary Pad Fundraiser can be found online.

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