Women and menstruation in Afghanistan

It has been impossible to remain unmoved by the news coming out of Kabul in recent weeks. The Taliban, the politico-military organisation who were removed from power in Afghanistan in 2001, have rapidly taken control of the country once again following the withdrawal of US troops. Photos, videos, testimonials and reports have flooded our media, along with controversies over how, when and where to offer asylum to the thousands of Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban’s totalitarian grip.

The age-old maxim says to look for the helpers when the world is in despair, and there have been a raft of charitable organisations seeking to support, feed, clothe and house Afghan refugees. Nevertheless, as is often the case, the call for menstrual support has been quiet. Other fires often seem more urgently in need of putting out in such scenarios, but this all too often means that menstrual hygiene becomes overlooked: it is sadly unsurprising that women’s issues are not given priority when humanitarian crises happen, as they are rarely given as much airtime as issues affecting men in peacetime.

Afghan women demonstrating against the Taliban in July

According to a UNICEF study conducted in 2014, 29% of Afghan girls missed school due to menstruation, 50% were unaware of what their period was before it started, 70% did not shower during their period, and 80% were not allowed to attend social events such as weddings and funerals. As with other cases of period poverty, it has not been uncommon for Afghan girls and women to use dirty rags and pieces of cloth in lieu of more hygienic menstrual products, heightening the risk of infection. Harmful miseducation (such as washing your vagina during menstruation can lead to infertility) alongside restrictive pricing (a single menstrual pad costing around $4) has meant that, according to the study, ‘Menstruating girls [were] unable to adequately manage their monthly menses with safety, dignity and privacy.’

Following on from this study, the Ministry of Education in Afghanisation, along with UNICEF, launched a program in 2018 of ‘Menstrual Hygiene Management’ to train teachers across the provinces to lead unisex workshops about menstruation and puberty in schools, including the use of resources such as ‘Mina’s Story‘, an illustrated book designed to help children understand menstruation. Further initiatives, such as the development of the reusable Safepad earlier this year (which contains a permanent self-sanitizing antimicrobial treatment, reducing fungi and bacteria during use and after washing, even if contaminated water is used, with a lifetime of at least two years) point to a brighter menstrual future for Afghan women.

An illustration from ‘Mina’s Story’

Despite such encouraging steps, societal biases mean that the fight for menstrual acceptance has been ongoing in Afghanistan. The taboo that surrounds menstruation is rife, with periods often being considered ‘shameful’, with menstruators sometimes being stopped from cooking due to being considered unclean. In some cases, lack of education around menstruation has been linked to child marriage, as, in some communities, once a girl has started her period, it is imperative she marries.

And this was all before recent events. The fate of not just menstruation, but women’s equality, is now more precarious than ever with the Taliban in charge. Under the Taliban, women’s lives are heavily restricted: no education, no jobs, no freedom of movement without a male relative chaperone. The inspirational schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, was famously shot in the head by a Taliban terrorist in Pakistan in 2012 due to her views on girls’ education. Speaking up about women’s issues under the Taliban is potentially a death sentence. And healthcare is no different: previously under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were banned from accessing public baths, leading to a rise in vaginal infections for those without private access to running water, and women were denied attendance at hospitals in Kabul.

Fear looms large at the moment, and many feel powerless and distraught at the state of Afghanistan. We’re raising money to buy menstrual pads at cost price from our partner organisation Freda, whose eco-friendly pads are made of sustainable wood pulp and wrapped in biodegradabale film, to distribute to refugees via organisations such as Care4Calais. If you’d like to help out, you can donate here: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/abgcforafghanistan. Thanks in advance for your generous donation!

~ Sophie

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