Tackling taboos and ensuring women’s dignity and well-being in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake

Published: 20 August 2015 11:11 CET

Sally Chapman and Rosemarie North, IFRC

Translating universal experiences into specific cultural and gender responses is a fundamental aspect of effective humanitarian work. Take menstruation as an example. It occurs on a monthly basis for most girls and women aged between 12 and 50. In that sense it is a universal experience. But the practices that surround menstruation can be very specific, as Nepal Red Cross Society found out during the 2015 earthquake response.

At a relief distribution site, Sarita Dhungana, a community mobiliser for the Nepal Red Cross, gathered four young women from Rasuwa district to one side and politely shooed away a hovering man. She explained that the Red Cross wanted the views of girls and women on a sensitive topic. She asked what the group, aged 14 to 20, do to manage their periods.

One, aged 20, said other women like her in the lower part of her district use sanitary pads. Others, in more remote hillside areas, tear a strip of fabric and wrap it around themselves, or tuck folded cotton fabric inside their clothes.

Either way, the earthquake left them without many options.

“After the earthquake, we just ran in the clothes we had on. Most of our other clothes were buried by mud. We just had what we wore,” said one of the women. Others just washed their clothes, as many have not even heard of underwear before or used fabric to absorb menstrual blood. 

This variety of practices is why the gender and inclusion department of the Nepal Red Cross Society did careful research before creating and distributing, for the first time, a menstrual hygiene management kit during the earthquake response.

“We began by looking at what international standards say is important for women and girls and what other organisations do,” explains Tara Bhattari, the Gender and Inclusion Director at the Nepal Red Cross Society.

“Then we met with other departments to discuss items which have previously been supplied, drawing on the expertise of colleagues in the water and sanitation and health departments, also those in communications so that we can create infographics explaining the contents at the kits,” Tara adds. “We also speak with women and girls of different ages to check what their practice is. We gathered samples from our local market so that our kits are adapted to what our women and girls actually use.”

Sally Chapman, Protection, Gender and Inclusion Advisor with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Nepal, says, “Visiting the market opened up fascinating discussions and local knowledge as to how women and girls in Nepal manage menstruation. We wanted to make sure that all items are contained and distributed in a small sealed bucket or vessel for washing. If it was me choosing a bucket I might accidentally have chosen a bucket for washing dishes – which means it would never be used by women and girls to soak their cotton cloth in.”

After doing the research, the Red Cross decided to distribute 6,000 kits in a small plastic bucket with a lid, containing two pairs of cotton underpants in different sizes, four pieces of soft cotton fabric measuring about 50 cm by 80cm and soap.

Sally says being able to access sufficient and adequate sanitary materials is essential to women’s and girls’ dignity and wellbeing, and helps fulfil the IFRC’s principle of promoting dignity, access, participation and safety during emergency responses.

“When women and girls usual way of managing menstruation is disrupted, if affects their health and ability to participate in some activities,” she adds. “Women may wait until it is dark to find a private place to change hygiene products and so risk infection. Girls may miss days at school or drop out completely because of embarrassment. Cultural taboos of exclusion means women are even less able to move freely, work or perform other daily activities.”

Not providing menstrual hygiene management within the first weeks of an emergency seriously undermines women’s and girls’ resilience. Distributing the items is also an entry point to deliver some basic reproductive health information.