An inclusive COVID-19 response: addressing the menstrual health and hygiene of girls and women with disabilities

Along the journey to zero – 0% open defecation

Hygiene promotion is a critical response measure to the COVID-19 pandemic. But for potentially disadvantaged groups such as people with disabilities, the coronavirus spread has evolved into yet another factor that compounds the hygiene-related challenges they face. People with disabilities are at greater risk of practising poor hygiene and contracting health-related infections and diseases. These risks are heightened for women with disabilities, especially when they are menstruating.

In some rural areas, there has been a long tradition of viewing menstruation as impure. Although there has been some improvements in disrupting this belief system, change has been slow. Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. As a result, menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) planning for girls and women within WASH programmes have been inadequately prioritised, moreover for girls and women with disabilities.

On 24 March 2020, the Government of Nepal declared a nationwide lockdown as part of an effort to manage the spread of the coronavirus. To further ensure that the government’s COVID-19 response and mitigation measures also considered the MHH needs of women and women with disabilities, SNV – with its local partner and Rural Municipality-level Disabled People’s Organisation self-help groups – engaged in an MHH awareness raising programme during Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May).

Woman with disability is counselled on the use of sanitary pads

Woman with disability is counselled on the use of sanitary pads

Using loudspeakers in rural communities, the programme broadcasted messages on the importance of MHH and organised individual counselling for women with disabilities and their caregivers. Sanitary pads and soaps were distributed to over 150 women with severe disabilities, and to 12 women in quarantine centres. SNV also dialogued with rural municipality chairpersons, presenting MHH-related gaps in their plans, and the need to strengthen their MHH response within these plans as part of the municipality’s commitment to Nepal’s ‘Total Sanitation’ programme. As a result, several Rural Municipality chairpersons expressed their commitment to allocate budgets for MHH in their respective annual plans.

While making our annual plan, we generally prioritise budget for people with disabilities. But we never understood the MHH-related problems of women with (severe) disabilities. Working with the SNV team taught us the importance of MHH and we will consider this a priority in our rural municipality. – Elected RM Chairperson in Ramnagar

The expressed budget commitment of Rural Municipality chairpersons is an encouraging development, not just for women, but also for women with disabilities. If this commitment is followed through, it has potential to help advance tailor-made sanitation and hygiene programming to make sure that no one is left behind.

Photo: Woman with disability is counselled on the use and disposal of a sanitary pad during MH Day (SNV/Pankaj Singh)

Notes: This blog is part of the bi-annual success stories of the Beyond the Finish Line  - Inclusive and sustainable rural water supply services in Nepal project supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Water for Women Fund. It was written by Ratan Budhathoki.