The debris of war lies heavily in Iraq. The country’s constant conflicts with ISIS, which internal sectarian divides and Kurdish disputes exacerbated, have led to the focus shifting from other vital issues. Period poverty in Iraq — the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, water and sanitation facilities and proper knowledge about menstruation — stands as one of these issues.
Taboo About Periods
In most developed countries, talks about puberty and sexual development are normal. In deeply conservative countries like Iraq, however, society considers the topic of menstruation taboo. This leads to not only unpreparedness but also feelings of shame when adolescent girls first start menstruating. In an article that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published, Rusul, a young Iraqi woman, opened up about her experience with her first period. She mentioned that she felt confused and afraid, and “thought that she had done something wrong.”
The UNFPA established a Women Social Center in Rusul’s neighborhood a few years after her harrowing experience. The Center hosts educational sessions on issues affecting girls and women, such as menstruation, in order to raise awareness and educate girls on how periods affect them both mentally and physically. By dispelling myths and being open about biological facts, women in Iraq can feel comfortable about their body processes and confident enough to take the steps to maintain proper health and hygiene.
Feelings of fear and embarrassment in relation to periods are even more prevalent among lower-income individuals who have even less access to information and products like sanitary pads. UNICEF believes that by educating girls about menstrual cycles at an early age, the organization can help girls develop healthy menstrual practices. The organization has started work in the North African and Middle East regions to equip people of all genders with the necessary information about menstruation to help address misconceptions, prevent discrimination and reduce stigmas.
In Iraq specifically, one of UNICEF’s ongoing projects aims to develop and strengthen the knowledge of menstrual hygiene management among teachers. By conveying their menstrual knowledge to schoolgirls and normalizing periods, educators will “build confidence and encourage healthy habits” among menstruating girls.
Period Poverty During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues of period poverty in Iraq and throughout the world. The economic recession and supply chain crisis that followed have made menstrual supplies and hygiene products even less accessible, especially for those living in poverty. When girls and women cannot access menstrual products, they often resort to unsanitary methods, such as using dirty clothes or plastic bags to contain the bleeding. Consequently, these girls and women put themselves at risk of infections.
Moreover, during the pandemic, measures like lockdowns and the closing of social and medical centers block off access to menstrual education and free menstrual resources. The situation is worse for people in refugee camps, prisons and other institutions. A woman in Kirkuk, Iraq, told UNFPA that during the lockdown in 2020, being in a detention center made detainees feel forgotten “but [their] intimate needs matter.”
Solutions to Combat Period Poverty
In response to the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, UNFPA has arranged to distribute dignity kits to families during the pandemic. During times of conflict with ISIS, specifically from 2014 to 2015, the UNFPA handed out about 95,000 such kits. The kit consists of “toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, sanitary pads and underclothes.” While distributing, UNFPA staff can meet women to assess their needs and tell them about the psychological and reproductive services that the organization offers.
UNHCR collaborated with partners in 2020 and assisted 77,786 girls and women in Iraq by providing sanitary products to them.
UNICEF also helped in arranging clean water and sanitation supplies for women in care homes, correctional facilities and hospitals. Additionally, public video messages and announcements created by UNFPA helped teachers, parents and students gain awareness of menstrual health, even though schools had effectively shut down.
These steps to address period poverty in Iraq are bearing fruit. Data that UNICEF and WHO collected from refugee camps in Iraq in 2020 shows that almost 100% of women felt satisfied with the provision of “menstrual materials and facilities.” Moreover, according to survey data collected in Iraq between 2016 and 2020, 94% of women between the ages of 15-49 years had a private place to wash and change and 97% “had basic hand washing facilities.”
Though solutions are underway, only continued efforts and steadfast commitments to reducing period poverty in Iraq will ensure long-term change and lasting impacts.
– Anushka Raychaudhuri