The price of menstrual products in Lebanon has soared – women must choose between food and free bleeding

·5-min read
Members of international NGO Days For Girls and local partner WingWoman Lebanon assemble reusable sanitary kits in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila (AFP/Getty)
Members of international NGO Days For Girls and local partner WingWoman Lebanon assemble reusable sanitary kits in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila (AFP/Getty)

Rags, scraps of old newspapers, plastic bags, cut up donated nappies or, in the most desperate moments, nothing at all. These are some of the awful alternatives to sanitary products that women in Lebanon have been forced to resort to as the price of tampons and pads have soared.

When people imagine families struggling in abject poverty, most think of the battle to access food, clean water, clothes or baby milk. But few think of something so essential – so regular – as the monthly need for menstrual products.

It can have a devastating impact, including preventing girls from attending school, forcing women to give up work, and suffer pain, disease, shame and rejection. It is not just Lebanon; this is a global problem and it needs to be tackled now.

Today in Lebanon, which is in the jaws of one of the world’s worst economic collapses, the average cost of menstrual products has risen a staggering fivefold in just a year. Packs of sanitary towels in some places are pushing 35,000 Lebanese pounds, which is nearly £17 on the official exchange rate. That is up from just 3,000 Lebanese pounds (£1.40) before the economic crisis.

It has meant that more than three quarters of women and girls in Lebanon are having difficulty accessing menstrual products, according to Lebanese rights group Fe-Male. In real terms that means having to choose between food or free bleeding.

The collapse of the local currency is largely behind this. The lira has lost over 90 per cent of its value in a year, meaning that on the black market the lira is trading at 18,500 to the dollar despite being still officially pegged at 1500. This has made imported goods like sanitary products prohibitively expensive.

Last year, to help the poorest, the Lebanese government compiled a list of 300 “essential” items that importers could bring into the country at an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese lira per dollar to keep costs down. While men’s razors were included on the list, sanitary products were apparently not, stoking fury.

But Lebanon is not an exception. According to the United Nations, nearly 13 per cent of women and girls globally live in poverty and struggle to access resources needed to deal with their periods. That percentage will have only grown in the pandemic.

Making this even harder is the fact that, as is the case in Lebanon, sanitary products are still treated like luxury items in many countries. It is staggering that the UK only abolished the “tampon tax” – a VAT on sanitary products – in January this year. Amazingly, we are comparatively progressive on this point.

Most EU countries are not permitted to reduce the rate of value-added tax on menstrual products below 5 per cent as they are deemed to be luxury items. In the US, taxes on sanitary products are still imposed in 27 of the 50 states. In Arizona tampons are taxed but liquorice is not; in Oklahoma tampons are also taxed but sun lamps are not; in South Carolina tampons are taxed but amusement park rides are not.

In Lebanon, women are fighting back. This month a group of women launched a period poverty festival called Jeyetna, which is currently touring the country. During the sessions they screen a documentary which follows 10 women struggling with periods, and then host question and answer sessions on menstruation. They have also set up stalls giving out free sustainable sanitary products, like moon cups, period pants and locally-made reusable pads.

Fadiya, 38, a Lebanese mother-of-four has been trained by the Wing Woman charity to sew reusable pads which are being given out at the festival. She says it is essential. “People cannot afford to buy pads anymore so women are using any old fabric, which is not safe,” she tells me. “I struggle to buy them for me and my 16-year-old daughter. I can sew and so try to find solutions to the many things that we struggle to buy now.”

The festival does not just focus on the lack of accessibility to products, it also highlights the lack of access to safe and secure bathrooms as well as education about the body and periods. During the festival, medical students are also on hand offering free consultations for anyone that has any questions.

“Periods are such silenced a topic and this needs to change,” says Vanessa Zammer, a Lebanese-Swiss women’s rights activist, who is part of the team behind the festival. “Tackling [period poverty] is vital, and it is at the crossroads of so many domains: economic justice […] women’s rights, body autonomy, sexuality, health, education.”

European filmmaker Evelina Llewellyn, who shot the documentary, says the idea of the festival could be easily tailored and replicated in countries across the globe. “There isn’t one country in the world that doesn’t have period poverty and it is on the rise. We could do the same format in other countries – there is a huge place for it in Europe.”

This crisis is only going to get worse in Lebanon and across the world, as the coronavirus pandemic plunges more people into poverty. Periods must be normalised. Sanitary products need to be accessible to all and treated as essential items. Women need to stop being silenced and punished. Enough is enough.

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