Meet the Women Fighting to End Period Stigma in Rural Bangladesh

Posted June 8, 2022

The Ambassador of Sweden to Bangladesh, H.E. Alexandra Berg von Linde expressed her support for the work of the SWAPNO women

By Van Nguyen, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Bangladesh

Period stigma remains pervasive in many countries, including Bangladesh, where a culture of silence creates barriers for adolescent girls to manage their menstruation in a safe and dignified manner. This is not only a health concern but is intrinsically linked to social justice, gender equality, and human rights.

In 2017, about 40% of girls in Bangladesh missed school during their menstruation because of the shame surrounding periods and a lack of sanitation facilities and menstrual hygiene products. Most girls do not know about menstruation before they first experience it, and little is done to increase awareness among girls through education facilities. As a result, many girls don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies when they get their first period, let alone how to manage it safely. Using unhygienic materials like rags and old bedsheets instead of proper sanitary products leads to frequent illness, embarrassment and skipping school.

Through the Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO) project, UNDP has engaged ultra-poor rural women in Kurigram, who are widowed, divorced, or abandoned in a cooperative to produce sanitary napkins and sell them in the local market.

During a recent field visit, we met with Mrs Kushi, the head of the cooperative, who explained how they started their small factory: “Initially we had 20 members who received 5,000Tk (around USD 60) each from SWAPNO to invest into the business. We also received a 15-day training, raw materials, a sterilization machine, and sewing machines to kickstart our business and begin production. I processed all necessary documents and received a certification from the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute that attests to the quality of our products. We now have a yearly income of 400,000Tk (around USD 4,500) and capital of 700,000Tk (around USD 7,800). Today, we are 120 women in our cooperative and have expanded our business to include a boutique where we sell stitched clothing and quilts.”

Not only have the women empowered themselves by becoming entrepreneurs and securing an income, but they have also tasked themselves with ending the pervasive period stigma in their community. Their sanitary napkins are sold at various schools in the region at the production price, making them much more affordable and accessible to adolescent girls. Moreover, the SWAPNO women have also started raising awareness in these schools to break the taboo around menstruation. Many local girls now have the courage to talk about menstrual hygiene and ask for the little money needed to purchase the sanitary napkins from their parents.

“We tell the girls and their parents that menstruation is a normal thing,” explained Kushi. “One should not be ashamed. Initially, they were hesitant, but we can now see that the girls are breaking the ice with their parents and are feeling less ashamed about their period. We tell the girls that without this natural process of menstruation, none of us would be in this world.”

 

The Ambassador of Sweden to Bangladesh, H.E. Alexandra Berg von Linde expressed her support for the work of the SWAPNO women: “I think this initiative is so important. This is not only a health issue for girls and women – but it is also an issue of education. Girls can go to school if they have these sanitary napkins. But it is also about taking away misunderstandings and misconceptions about menstruation – it is a natural thing. You don’t have to be isolated, and there is nothing wrong with it. I think this initiative contributes to so much more than just health.”

The women have now graduated from the project. They are no longer in need of any financial support – they have been empowered, both financially and socially, and are already making plans about how they can further expand their business and continue to spread awareness to end period stigma in rural Bangladesh.

Since its inception in 2014, SWAPNO has helped over 65,000 distressed rural women change their conditions and lift them out of extreme poverty through diversified, adaptive income-generating activities. With financial support from the Government of Sweden, Government of Bangladesh, and technical assistance from UNDP, SWAPNO is improving rural women’s human capital, livelihoods and living conditions to make them resilient against economic and natural shocks and create a long-lasting positive impact on their lives