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Among the 1.9 billion people worldwide who menstruate, 500 million find themselves trapped in the cycle of period poverty month after month. Although period poverty is a global health crisis, targeting homeless populations, low-income individuals, and refugees across the world, it is the most concentrated in developing countries. Many countries in the MENA region face a significant and disproportionate burden of period poverty. Limited access to education, healthcare, and sanitation facilities maintain cycles of poverty in these regions. Lebanon, in particular, has struggled greatly in this regard over the past five years.

This article uses the term ‘menstruating persons’ to acknowledge that not all who menstruate identify as women or girls. The aim is to foster inclusivity and respect for the diverse experiences and identities of those who menstruate.

What is Period Poverty?

Period poverty is the lack of access to menstrual products, sanitation facilities, and health education. Without said access, menstruating persons often resort to unhygienic alternatives. Some, for instance, have reported washing their pads to try to reuse them; others reported using their children’s diapers. These practices can lead to infection, skin irritation, and other health complications. Furthermore, the shame associated with inadequate menstrual hygiene has been shown to negatively impact emotional well-being and self-image. But the consequences of inaccessible menstrual products go beyond health. Nearly half of all girls in India and a third of girls in Bangladesh and Ethiopia miss school during menstruation due to a lack of products and proper facilities. Likewise, the limited availability of menstrual products in workplaces can lead to decreased productivity, missed workdays, and limited career advancement opportunities. Lebanon, in particular, has experienced a distressing escalation of period poverty but has struggled to manage these challenges given the country’s cultural stigmatization and economic downturns. 


Period Poverty in Lebanon

In 2019, Lebanon experienced an unprecedented financial crash that devastated its economy. Within two years, the official currency—the Lebanese pound—experienced a 90% devaluation, plunging the population into unexpected poverty. As a result, the nation’s poverty rate nearly doubled from 42% in 2019 to 82% in 2021. The devaluation of the currency triggered a surge in prices across various goods and services, including menstrual products. Within twelve months, the price of menstrual products increased by 500%, becoming unaffordable for a significant portion of the population. 

To grasp the severity of the situation, consider the following: Lebanon’s median household income stands at a mere CAD 160 per month, while the prices of menstrual products range from 43,000 pounds to 150,000 pounds, equivalent to approximately $38 to $131. These figures underscore the challenge of affordability countless individuals faced. Desperate, many resorted to unsafe alternatives like newspapers, old rags, old blankets, or toilet paper. And those who did have access to sanitary pads reported using them for days on end. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 amplified the financial burden for already-struggling menstruating persons in Lebanon. Disruptions in businesses and employment resulted in widespread job losses and reduced incomes. Pandemic-related restrictions limited the availability of hygiene facilities in schools, workplaces, and public spaces. Likewise, market restrictions (intended to control the spread of the virus) disrupted supply chains, limiting access to essential goods, including menstrual products. In three years, period poverty which was once confined to low-income individuals and refugees had spread to 76% of the population. Many who once lived comfortably in the middle class now found themselves struggling to manage their menstruation. 

Economic conditions like financial meltdowns and pandemics help explain the drastic spike in period poverty, yet do not provide a whole account. To fully understand why the crisis not only exists but persists in Lebanon, one must consider cultural conditions.

Cultural Stigma in Lebanon

In Lebanon, menstruation is considered taboo and associated with impurity, shame, and secrecy. In most local shops and pharmacies, cashiers hand over pads and tampons in black bags to conceal their contents from the public. According to Sally Farhat, Founder of NAYA, an organization designed to amplify Lebanese women’s voices,  “[w]omen can be kept away from family members and shunned from offering prayers during what is, sheepishly referred to as ‘that time of the month.'”

It is worth noting that Farhat’s statement is based on her lived experiences in certain areas of Lebanon and not the entirety of Lebanon itself. Many Muslims and scholars believe menstruation to be a sacred, natural bodily function. The cultural taboos that uphold period poverty are held mostly amongst literalist, fundamentalist, and extremist interpreters of the Qur’an. 

Stigma and myths about menstruation manifest partly due to a lack of education. In Lebanese public schools, sexual health education remains controversial and underdeveloped. If periods are discussed, it is brief and only from a biological perspective. Hayat Mirshad, co-founder of Fe-male, a nonprofit that works towards a just and safe world for women and girls in Lebanon, explained in an interview that the fundamental issue lies in the societal perception that menstruation is exclusively a “girl’s problem.” Mirshad explained, “[i]t is a recurring theme that women are pulled aside to learn about menstruation, often leaving men entirely naïve of the topic.”

This taboo has left menstruating people ill-equipped to deal with their periods safely and hygienically. Individuals have reported being anxious about navigating public spaces during menstruation, so much so that some choose not to eat to delay their period altogether. Many have even been shunned or told to leave public spaces if their period leakage becomes visible. Stigma as such is baked into Lebanese society, affecting all women. 

In 2020, the Lebanese government released a list of “essential goods” eligible for subsidized import, which included men’s razors but excluded sanitary products. Public outrage on social media followed suit and in response, the Minister of Economy and Trade publicly stated the subsidization of local menstrual products would happen. Nothing, however, has changed. The lack of open dialogue and understanding surrounding menstruation hinders the development of effective policies to promote menstrual health. So, period poverty remains a persistent issue because it is shrouded in stigma. Cultural taboos which surround it make addressing the problem all the more challenging. 

Despite this, advocacy efforts are continually being made to address period poverty. Worldwide, women are joining forces to challenge the status quo. Women-led organizations like Help A Girl Out, The Pad Project and Days for Girls, have paved the way for change, but there is still much to do. Because stigma remains deeply entrenched and is not easy to uproot, societal change requires sustained effort and time. A collective, collaborative effort is necessary to achieve greater success and lasting transformation.

Moving forward 

To truly address the problem at its core, it is crucial to challenge deep-rooted beliefs and misconceptions. Education plays a pivotal role in this process, as comprehensive health education (CSE) can help dispel myths and empower individuals to embrace menstruation as a natural bodily process. However, the implementation of CSE in Lebanon is no simple feat. 

In 1995, a sex-ed curriculum was created by the United Nations and the Educational Center for Research and Development. It covered topics like the physiological changes during puberty, the structures and functions of reproductive organs, and the menstrual cycle. It also addressed sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. These topics were framed in local contexts, highlighting abstinence and monogamy and mentioning abortion only as a last-resort procedure (in alignment with Lebanese law). 

Despite its cultural considerations and scientific basis, the curriculum faced instant backlash from several religious leaders. Those who opposed argued it would lead to perversion and “immoral” attitudes. In response to public pressure, the Minister of Education at the time removed sex-ed from school curricula. Lebanon’s present sex-ed has not been updated since 2009 and remains shrouded in controversy.

Nonetheless, several organizations have been diligently working to provide the public with reliable, comprehensive information. The Lebanese Medical Students’ International Committee, for instance, works with schools and scout groups to supply information about comprehensive sex education. Likewise, The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health has developed a curriculum about LGBT+ health and teaches it to medical students at certain universities in Lebanon. 

These sex education programs and initiatives are necessary and effective. Comprehensive sex education helps dispel misconceptions surrounding menstruation, reduces the shame and stigma associated with periods, and promotes gender equality. Successful CSE programs have proven to  lower adolescent pregnancy rates, STDs, and sexual risk behaviors. By equipping individuals with the necessary information and resources, CSE programs offer better menstrual health outcomes and a more supportive environment for those experiencing period poverty in Lebanon.

The Role of NGOs

While collaborative efforts involving the government and policymakers are typically essential in addressing societal issues like period poverty, the current circumstances in Lebanon make it unrealistic to rely solely on their involvement. Factors like limited resources, cultural stigma, religious influence, and competing priorities hinder progress in tackling period poverty effectively. Therefore in Lebanon, NGOs play a crucial role. Noteworthy organizations like Fe-male, Dawrati, and Jeyetik are at the forefront, mobilizing resources and directly engaging with affected communities. They raise awareness, address cultural stigma, educate, and advocate for policy changes. Although immediate collaboration between the government and NGOs may be unlikely, it remains an aspirational goal. In the meantime, NGOs continue to lead the way, paving a path for future transformative change that ensures the menstrual health and dignity of all people in Lebanon.

Edited by Ashley Renz

Madalynn Hausch

Madalynn is currently studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include gender in politics, sexual and reproductive health rights, Big Tech, and data justice....