As the price of sanitary products skyrockets amidst Lebanon’s prolonged economic crash, a cohort of young women have taken it upon themselves to fight the country’s growing problem of period poverty. In doing so, they’ve also stirred up a conversation about eco-friendly alternatives, and challenged long-held cultural norms.
Lebanon’s financial downfall, which began in late 2019, has seen the local currency lose around 90 percent of its value. The dollar is officially sold for 1,500 Lebanese pounds, but trades for around 20,000 pounds on the black market that most people use. Fuel bottlenecks, daily 20-hour electricity blackouts, and empty pharmacy shelves have become routine.
As of early September, the UN estimates that around three in four of Lebanon’s 6.8 million people are living in poverty, a drastic increase from around 50 percent in 2020.
Those who have periods shoulder an extra burden: The price of sanitary pads, whether manufactured locally or imported, has more than quintupled, forcing many women to give up their regular brands, with some seeking out sub-standard alternatives like diapers or rags.
Dalal, a mother of three daughters from the eastern Beqaa Valley town of Rayak, told The New Humanitarian it has become a near impossibility for her family to afford the minimum of six packs of pads they need every month.
“Due to the economic crisis, I lost my job,” Dalal said, asking for her surname not to be published because she didn’t want friends or family to know about what she considers to be a personal issue. “I opted to substitute disposable pads with old fabrics, nylon, and cotton. Our menstrual health is at risk because I cannot afford decent period products.”
Dina, a 40-year-old mother of two daughters from Nabatieh in southern Lebanon, who also asked that her full name not be revealed, described how her weekly visit to the supermarket has become a source of stress. “I normally buy one pack for night use, another for day use, and a pack of small pads for my daughter,” she explained. During her latest supermarket visit, she only had enough to buy one night pack.
The experiences of women like Dalal and Dina are widespread, according to a recent study by the Lebanese NGO Fe-Male and the UK-based NGO Plan International: It found that 76 percent of women and girls in Lebanon are now having trouble getting menstrual supplies.
However, as awareness of the issue has grown, a clutch of new products – both from charitable enterprises and sold by local businesses – has been emerging.
Passionate about the environment and women's health, 26-year old Mayssaa Cheayto began selling reusable pads – made of fabric that needs to be washed before they can be used again – in October 2020 at Earthona, her eco-friendly shop in southern Beirut. At the beginning, it took several months to sell just 100 pads, but demand has now been so high that she has had to restock, selling around 800 since June.
“When we started selling pads, women couldn’t emotionally accept the concept due to many misconceptions about menstrual hygiene,” Cheayto told The New Humanitarian. “With the economic crisis affecting even the middle class, reusable pads have become a need rather than an option.”
An investment for some, out of reach for many?
Once unheard of in Lebanon, reusable pads – in a variety of colours, designs, and sizes – are now gaining traction in the country, at shops like Cheayto’s but also with various NGOs and social enterprises.
“A woman who invests in a large number of disposable pads will benefit from using the same pad for five years,” noted Assia Noureddine, 28, the founder of BDeal, another online environmentally conscious shop that sells the items.
Noureddine opened her shop – the name of which is a play on the Arabic word for “alternative” – in August 2019 to provide eco-friendly, plastic-free menstrual products as a complement to the environmental awareness and health campaigns she leads.
Each pad costs between $2.30 and $2.79 (at black market exchange rates), and in the past three months alone she has sold 200, compared to 400 in total over the previous two years.
“I wanted women to primarily buy reusable pads out of care for their own health and environment, not only economic reasons.”
“There’s [been] a sharp increase in sales,” Noureddine said. “I wanted women to primarily buy reusable pads out of care for their own health and environment, not only economic reasons – but I’m still happy with the turnout.”
However, with so many people in Lebanon struggling to make ends meet, items like those sold by Noureddine and Cheayto are beyond the reach of most.
Chaza Akik, an assistant research professor in public health at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who has studied period poverty, told The New Humanitarian that a complete switch to reusable pads is cost-effective in the long run, reducing the cost by 60-76 percent for every woman per year.
But she added that the initial investment of 40,000 to 46,000 Lebanese pounds – around $2 to $3 based on the black market exchange rate, or around the same cost as two packs of seven disposable pads – may still be out of reach for many women and girls in Lebanon.
Menstrual cups and stigma
While it has clearly been exacerbated by the recent economic crisis, period poverty has been a reality in Lebanon for some time. According to the Lebanese NGO Dawrati, which was launched in May 2020 to fight the problem, “people have recently become more aware of it and joined efforts to shed light on it.”
Darwati (“My Period” in Arabic) said people began talking about how unaffordable sanitary products were around 10 years ago, when Syrian refugees began arriving in Lebanon – many of whom had no money to buy the brands on offer in shops.
The conversation got louder after the catastrophic August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port, the NGO said in responses to private messages on Instagram. According to the UN, the blast left around 84,000 menstruating women and girls among the displaced and in need of support to meet their menstrual hygiene needs.
Groups like Dawrati sprung up to help, along with shops selling reusable pads. But even if they became affordable for all (AUB’s Akik mentioned that government or aid agency subsidies could help make this a reality), pads may not be the best solution for everyone who has a period.
A 2020 study commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on the social acceptability and practicality of using reusable sanitary pads in Lebanon found a host of challenges. For starters, among the around one million Syrian refugees and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees are many women who either lack the resources to regularly wash fabric pads or feel uncomfortable about the practicalities involved.
Here’s how Akik, who worked on the study, summarised the issues that emerged: “While some women, mainly adolescents, felt disgusted by manually washing the pads, other women raised concerns about having access to water and soap, and finding private places to dry the pads especially in informal settlements [where many of the country’s Syrian refugees live].”
This is also a hurdle for those trying to encourage the use of menstrual cups in Lebanon – people like Elissa and Charbel, who founded an online shop called Juniper at the onset of the financial crisis in September 2019.
Menstrual cups are made of a flexible material and inserted into the vagina, where they collect blood and then are removed, emptied, and washed out for reuse. Much like tampons, the need to put them inside the vagina has made cups largely unwelcome in Lebanese society, according to Elissa and Charbel, who prefer to go by their first names. They said this is due to a multitude of reasons and misconceptions, including an emphasis on keeping the hymen intact before marriage, despite the fact many women’s hymens are stretched without sexual activity.
Using the product as an opportunity, and their presence on online platforms like Instagram as springboards, Juniper’s founders hope to spread scientific knowledge, raise awareness, and encourage open discussions about women’s bodies that can help eliminate stigma.
“We took it upon ourselves to target this stigma and change how the female body and periods are perceived and discussed publicly,” they told The New Humanitarian in a joint email. “We want to reinforce a safer environment within our society, in which men and women are equally informed and women’s issues are no longer marginalised.”
Since its launch, Juniper has sold menstrual cups to over 2,000 users. But with a price tag of around 132,000 Lebanese pounds each, around $22, they are unaffordable for most women in Lebanon. Comments on Juniper’s Instagram page show a variety of opinions on the cups they sell: While one follower criticised the hefty cost, another described it as the “best investment” she had ever made.
A festival to raise awareness
Aware of the high costs of reusable products and the lack of public discussion on the issue, Jeyetna, a two-month period poverty festival that took off in July, is trying to bring menstrual alternatives to the doorsteps of women and girls across Lebanon.
Founded by British-French film director Evelina Llewellyn, who is based in Beirut, Jeyetna’s white truck is painted with images of blood-stained underwear hanging off laundry lines, and roams Lebanon from south to north.
Billing itself as the first of its kind in the region, the donations-based festival stopped in 25 locations across Lebanon, hosting a period market that distributes free reusable, eco-friendly menstrual products – mainly period panties (which soak up blood and can then be washed), reusable pads, and Juniper’s menstrual cups.
Working with Jeyetik, another Lebanese campaign that has been distributing menstrual products to those in need since the Beirut explosion, the organisers say the diversity of items they give away allows women to experiment with new alternatives and choose the option they are most comfortable with.
Local volunteers help tailor the festival to address the different needs and cultures it encounters during its nationwide tour, offering medical consultations and a safe space for women to discuss their periods. A documentary on period poverty, directed by Llewellyn, is screened at each stop.
Myriam Skaf, the founder of Jeyetik, said there have been generational differences in what women ask for, but almost everyone has been open to trying something new.
“While the younger generation is prone to use menstrual cups, women in their 30s and 40s are preferring reusable panties,” Skaf told The New Humanitarian. “Some have asked for ways to sew these panties themselves locally, to distribute them among women in their areas.”
Skaf launched Jeyetik after the Beirut blast, when it became clear that some girls were avoiding school because they didn’t have the pads or other menstrual hygiene items they needed. Relying on donations, Jeyetik has since distributed over 6,000 period products for free. But given the vast needs in Lebanon, and limited funding at home and abroad, donations are now dwindling.
“2021 is a very challenging year economically in Lebanon and around the globe,” said Skaf. “People who were very generous in their donations after the Beirut blast and excited about these initiatives are no longer in a position that allows them to support us financially.”
This article was produced in collaboration with Egab, which connects journalists from the Middle East and North Africa with news organisations worldwide.