… Bhutanese women struggle with period poverty

Chencho Dema | Punakha

Access to menstrual products and hygiene facilities continues to be a pressing issue in Bhutan, particularly in rural areas, where women face the burden of period poverty. 

Sonam, a 29-year-old woman from Lhuentse, vividly recalls relying on old clothing as makeshift sanitary pads due to the absence of shops in her village. Today, though limited options are available, the high cost of sanitary pads remains a significant challenge.

Period poverty, defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management, and education, is an issue that lacks comprehensive data and research, particularly in rural areas. The Journal of Global Health Reports emphasizes the need for further study and analysis to address this pressing concern.

For women like a 46-year-old resident of Chubu Gewog, purchasing sanitary napkins each month proves to be expensive and time-consuming, often requiring long journeys to the nearest shops. Some resort to using old bedsheets in place of sanitary pads, highlighting the desperate measures they must take.

According to the National Statistics Bureau’s Poverty Analysis report, approximately 12 out of every 100 Bhutanese people live below the poverty line, with a poverty rate of 12.4%. The poverty rate is even higher in rural areas, reaching 17.5%, compared to 4.2% in urban areas. The cost of purchasing sanitary pads further exacerbates the financial burdens faced by rural women.

Although the Bhutanese government took steps to address this issue by eliminating the 30 percent import duty on sanitary products in 2021, the affordability of sanitary pads remains a significant concern. A recent investigation found that many shops in Punakha and Wangdue charge additional fees or sell sanitary pads at the maximum retail price.

Awareness campaigns and education about menstrual hygiene practices are crucial in promoting good hygiene among women and girls. Tshering Choden, a private employee, stressed the importance of conducting studies to assess rural women and girls’ access to sanitary pads and facilities. Additionally, proper disposal of used sanitary products is essential to preserve the ecosystem.

Recognizing the urgency of the issue, local initiatives have emerged to support vulnerable girls and students. Deputy Chief Education Officer of Punakha Rinchen Samdrup has been buying and distributing sanitary pads ensuring that girls in the district have access to menstrual hygiene products.

The Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MoESD) has also taken steps to address the issue. Free sanitary napkins have been provided in schools since 2020, thanks to the ministry’s partnership with organizations like JICA, UNICEF, and Save the Children. Efforts are being made to reach primary schools in remote areas that lack access to roads.

However, girls with disabilities face unique challenges and require additional support. Students like Namgay Lhamo, a 16-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, struggle to manage their periods and often face embarrassment due to inadequate facilities. Advocates call for greater attention to be given to menstrual hygiene for disabled students to ensure their comfort and well-being.

The MoE, in collaboration with developmental partners, is initiating inclusive toilets in schools to cater to the needs of disabled students. Efforts are underway to construct these facilities in SEN schools, with plans to build 20 SEN toilets supported by the World Bank. However, there is a need to improve the user-friendliness of inclusive toilets by addressing concerns such as railings, doors, and windows.

As Bhutan marks Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, it is essential to prioritise the needs of women and girls by addressing the root causes of period poverty. Access to affordable menstrual products, improved hygiene facilities, and comprehensive education are crucial steps, according to experts, in ensuring the well-being and empowerment of Bhutanese women.