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The Shadow Pandemic

Guest Post By: Elizabeth Titus

There is a “shadow pandemic” in the wake of COVID-19 that poses a major risk for women and girls and threatens their hard-won progress toward gender equality.

As the United Nations Population Fund pointed out in a March 2020 brief, “The pandemic will compound existing gender inequalities, and increase risks of gender-based violence. The protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls should be prioritized. Outreach, social protection, and services for most marginalized women and girls.”

Because girls are not in school during the COVID-19 lockdown, they are especially vulnerable. According to a new report launched by Save the Children, almost 10 million children worldwide may never return to school. Girls will have a harder time than boys, forced into early marriage or the labor market as families struggle with extreme poverty.

Further, the pandemic highlights and exacerbates the challenges women and girls confront in obtaining basic menstrual products and education. One nonprofit that is working to address this situation is Days for Girls. Since 2008, Days for Girls has produced and distributed washable, sustainable menstrual period pads (DfG Kits). Volunteers in over 1,000 chapters and teams, together with local enterprise leaders, create kits for distribution to the most vulnerable, reaching over 1.8 million women and girls.

With 70,000 grassroots volunteers and nearly 150 global enterprise teams, Days for Girls is working with partners to provide the outreach, social protection, and services recommended by the United Nations. The global nonprofit is shifting the way it reaches women and girls, often going door to door, working with families, doing community research, and using social media and technology to continue its education and awareness programs — all while following COVID-19 protocols.

An Impassioned Response from The Field

When Days for Girls founder and CEO Celeste Mergens reached out to local DfG leaders in the field in Africa, asking what they were seeing first-hand due to girls no longer attending school and having little access to menstrual supplies, the response was immediate and impassioned.

Days for Girls Director of Advocacy and Policy Diana Nelson, based in Uganda, reported: “It’s never been more crucial for school-age girls to have menstrual supplies, and with schools and community centers closed, they have few options. We run the very real risk of losing ground after making tremendous progress in menstrual health.”

She cited a recent World Bank study that pointed out: “Period stigma and taboos persist, and can undermine girls’ confidence at a key stage of development.”

Nelson described harrowing stories of desperate women and girls doing whatever it takes to get menstrual supplies. “Women and girls are exchanging sex with boda drivers for money to buy menstrual supplies. Research tells us this was going on before COVID-19, but it is intensifying.” She went on to explain that these vehicles, common in Kenya and Uganda, are motorcycles that serve as taxis, mostly driven by men. “The drivers prey on women and girls at this insecure time, exchanging sex for money. “

In a recent article, Reuters addressed the many health risks tied to women seeking alternative ways to deal with their periods. In low-income countries such as Zimbabwe, for example, women and girls are using cloth napkins, but with unclean water, so there is great risk of bacterial infection. There are even instances where they are using cow dung.

Tragically, according to Nelson, the lack of access to menstrual supplies has led to domestic violence. In Uganda, for example, there are stories of some girls cutting up their blankets to make homemade pads, only to be beaten by spouses and fathers for ruining the blankets.

As well, families facing food shortages often see few options other than cutting down the size of their households; forced marriages, often involving very young girls, are on the rise. Teen pregnancies are also increasing, in part due to transactional sex for pads.

Uganda Country Director Diana Nampeera confirmed the disturbing trends. “During the lockdown, we saw a rise in teenage pregnancies, especially in the eastern region of the country.”

Her observations are supported by UNICEF Uganda, where district leaders are worried that by the time schools reopen, more than half the female students will either be married off or pregnant. Girls, according to the nonprofit, “are viewed commercially as bride price and can be married off at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Nampeera is working hard to protect women and girls, engaging local leaders to support her. She described how women who sit on the council in one village helped map the village to make it easier for her Days for Girls trainers to move around during door-to-door efforts to offer supplies and education about menstruation.

In Kenya, Enterprise Leader and youth activist Alice Wambui Mwangi managed to get a local chief to accompany her on home visits to show the importance of the work she is doing in menstrual health. “It was encouraging to have the chief support us as youth activists during COVID-19. He made sure we had security and that people were cooperative, especially with the issue of social distancing. Support and advocacy from a leader confirm the vision is not just talk, not just aspiration. It’s something that can really be done, something that is within reach!”

Partnerships to Extend Reach

Partnerships have always been a means for Days for Girls and others in the menstrual-health field to extend their reach. In Ghana, for example, Days for Girls and Plan International developed a joint campaign. They created a simple, easy-to-follow infographic so women and girls could make emergency pads at home. Then, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda posted this on their Facebook page so it reached thousands of people.

The Days for Girls COVID -19 infographic and other materials were promoted by WashUnited and the MH Hub.  In addition, Days for Girls was one of the organizations working in the menstrual health field to contribute COVID-19 infographics that WashUnited distributes to a wide audience.

Days for Girls partnered with the African Coalition for Menstrual Health and Hygiene (ACMHM) and UNFPA to host the webinar, “Menstrual Health Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic in Africa: What Have We Learnt?” This webinar linked with International Menstrual Health Day and had close to 300 global participants.

Further, Days for Girls has been active in advocating that governments and other nonprofits position menstrual products as basic needs during COVID-19. At the same time, they are encouraging governments to add washable pads as another option to the menstrual hygiene products they distribute in schools, so that in the event of another wave in the current pandemic or a new pandemic, girls will have a product that will last

during lockdowns. They’re working with UNFPA and the South African Department of Women, Youth, and People with Disabilities to push through certification for manufacturers of washable pads so they can be added to the government’s list of products that have been certified and tested by the South African Bureau of Standards for their Sanitary Dignity Implementation Framework.

Days for Girls Chief Communications Officer Jessica Williams was clear about the urgency of the situation and the danger of losing the hard-won gains. “COVID19 poses a serious threat to gains made in gender equality and the protection of rights for women and girls around the world. Days for Girls is proud to work with other nonprofits and governments to preserve equal protections for millions of women and girls.”

Elizabeth Titus
Elizabeth Titus has been an English teacher, a journalist, an advertising executive, and a communications director (15 years at American Express). For the past decade, she has focused on probono consulting to nonprofits, via PennPAC, for graduates of the University of Pennsylvania; Taproot; and Catchafire. She is especially interested in gender equality and the education of girls and women. A freelance writer, her articles have appeared in Ms., Narrative, and The Humanist, among others. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.