Stories

COVID-19 Leadership: Menstrual health project keeps PNG girls in school

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

For many adolescent Pacific girls and young women, managing their menstrual cycles is a challenge that COVID-19 has made even more difficult – preventing their participation in education.

High prices and low availability of sanitary pads, limited knowledge on the subject and unhelpful cultural taboos all combine to keep menstruating girls and young women home from school. And as household incomes and global supply and distribution chains buckle under the pressure of COVID-19, access to vital commercial sanitary products has become even more limited in the Pacific.

To keep girls supported and in school, Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) alumni Florence Siba, Anna Apop, and Lavinia ToVue have established a Menstrual Health Hygiene (MHH) Education and Awareness project in their home country of Papua New Guinea.

Supported by WLI as part of its COVID-19 response, the project aims to improve community attitudes towards menstruation, and provides a locally-made, reusable sanitary pad alternative.

Why are menstruating girls missing school in PNG?

Even before the impacts of COVID-19 were felt in the Pacific, research has long indicated that adolescent girls and women in PNG lack adequate knowledge and preparedness around menstruation.

And while mothers and female friends or relatives are relied on as an important source of information on the topic, many lack the accurate knowledge and resources in the first place.

Common beliefs and discriminatory attitudes around menstruation being “unclean” also lead to high levels of secrecy, shame, and poor mental and physical health outcomes for girls and women.

And while large numbers of commercial sanitary products are available in PNG, they are only affordable to some. 

Florence, Anna and Lavinia explain, “COVID-19 and lockdowns have caused difficulty in the importation of commercial menstrual products in the Pacific region. This has resulted in shortages of supply and price increases.”

This occurs alongside “decreased economic activity of families” and ultimately reduced household incomes that would have supported girls and women to purchase these items.

All of these factors stack up to prevent girls from attending school while menstruating. And sometimes – due to experiences of embarrassment and large chunks of school being missed – they never return to their education.

About the Menstrual Health Hygiene Education and Awareness project

Led by Florence, Anna and Lavinia and focusing on key locations in Port Moresby and Kokopo, East New Britain, the project uses a two-part approach to keeping girls and young women empowered, healthy and in school.

Firstly, they deliver training in schools to women, girls, men and boys on menstrual health and hygiene – engaging students, coordinators and awareness partners.

Secondly, they coordinate the production and distribution of menstrual health hygiene kits in schools – which supports advocacy and includes reusable sanitary pads each lasting up to three years.

The reusable pads not only provide an accessible and environmentally-friendly alternative to single-use sanitary products, but help to maintain cleaner toilet facilities in schools – another known barrier for menstruating girls and women attending school.

The kits were made in-country by a production team of six local sewers who were employed and trained through the project.

And while the team explains that addressing menstrual health and hygiene is extremely challenging and ongoing, “education and awareness break the cultural taboo and lessen the stigma over time … and alleviate challenges girls have in completing all levels of education”.  

WLI looks forward to monitoring the progress and positive outcomes of this vital project as it is delivered over the coming months. 

And while the team explains that addressing menstrual health and hygiene is extremely challenging and ongoing, “education and awareness break the cultural taboo and lessen the stigma over time … and alleviate challenges girls have in completing all levels of education”. 

WLI looks forward to monitoring the progress and positive outcomes of this vital project as it is delivered over the coming months. 

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Florence, Anna and Lavinia’s Menstrual Health Hygiene Education and Awarenessproject is one of 15 COVID-19-related leadership projects being implemented by WLI participants and alumni in the Pacific.

Funded by WLI, teams work collaboratively to scope, develop and implement projects with a focus on health, education, safety and security, and agriculture and food security are being implemented across six Pacific countries (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Nauru, Tonga and Solomon Islands).

Find out more about each project here.