In the Himalayan foothill district of Sindhupalchok, the village of Chautara is a ghost town after most of its inhabitants moved to a makeshift encampment in the wake of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated the area. Bright orange and blue tarpaulin tents dot the hilltop where the camp serves as a shelter for thousands whose houses were either swallowed or destroyed.
Outside one of the tents, an improvised health clinic is operating in full force with Nepali Army doctors tending to lacerations and fractures. Nineteen-year-old Nani Karki sat by her mother and tugged at her lose pale pink salwar (pants) as they waited for their turn. She was nervous about staining herself. Like many other girls in the camp, she was menstruating. “I have been using the same cotton cloth and washing it in the area there,” she said, pointing to a patch of land used for open defecation. There, Karki uses the same unfiltered water she drinks to wash herself and the single cloth she has been reusing as a sanitary napkin for three days.
Due to the overwhelming need for food, shelter and water, menstrual health has fallen down in the list of priorities during the initial disaster relief management activities. Before the earthquake, Nepal scored only 45.4 out of 100 on the South Asia Women Resilience Index, a tool that assess how well a country is prepared for disasters and how women are considered in the national rebuilding efforts.
“There are no proper toilet facilities or private spaces in the camps and so girls sometimes just keep the cloths on for days, which is very worrisome,” said Dr. Hema Pradhan, consultant gynecologist and fistula surgeon at the Kathmandu Model Hospital. To educate girls about the potential health risks of such practices and teach them how to dispose of overused cotton cloths or sanitary napkins responsibly, Loom Nepal, a women’s rights NGO, is deploying teams to camps in rural areas. “We went to the village of Kavre on the outskirts and saw some girls sitting huddled in tents, covered in blood,” said Ursula Singh, program officer. She said that most girls wait until it gets dark to step outside.
“We want them to at least practice hygienic disposal because they are in super exposed conditions and that puts them at a higher risk to contract diseases,” she elaborated. Digging holes and burying the used sanitary napkin under ground is so far the only option.
Singh added that she was glad the age-old Nepali tradition of ‘chaupadi’ —where some communities in the far-western part of the country expect women to isolate themselves when they are menstruating—had been outlawed, preventing further handicaps in the present disaster situation.
Meanwhile in the Tundikhel relief camp in Kathmandu, the women have been indulging in safer sanitation practices than in the neighboring rural areas. “There is a gas station around the corner and WaterAid has set up portable toilets,” said Priya Lama, as she rocked her sister’s son in her arms. Her biggest problem with menstruating is finding clean water to boil the cloths she uses.
Another organization empowering women in Nepal, Women Lead is handing out free packets of sanitary napkins to girls involved in their mentorship program. “Just in one day 175 out of 225 packs were taken by girls and that is the first item they asking for,” said Giselle Bolton, development fellow. She added that the organization takes into account how many family members each girl has because they assume that everyone is sharing. “We are operating on personal donations, but we understand that there is an immediate and urgent need to figure out a system to get more quantities,” she said.
Chemists in Kathmandu say that many sanitary napkins have been purchased in the past week and they aren’t increasing the prices. A packet of 8 napkins costs about 50 cents and a larger packet of 15 napkins costs about $2.50, which is quite affordable by Nepali standards, said Santosh Giri, a local chemist.
This article was supported by the International Reporting Project