Rising sea levels in Bangladesh are driving women to take the pill to stop menstruating

 People living in the southern coastal region of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh suffer from a water shortage in the dry season as a result of increasing salinity in the groundwater, and of the river Satkhira, caused by rising sea levels. Image via Flickr by International monetary fund. CC BY NC-ND 2.0

People living in the southern coastal region of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh suffer from a water shortage in the dry season as a result of increasing salinity in the groundwater and the river Satkhira caused by rising sea levels. Image via Flickr by International Monetary Fund. CC BY NC-ND 2.0.

U.S.-based nonprofit conservation platform Mongabay published an article in July 2022 revealing that rising sea levels are sending saltwater rapidly inwards into the land and freshwater sources in the villages of Satkhira near the Sundarbans and the Bay of Bengal, limiting access to freshwater in these areas. One shocking consequence for the women and girls in the area is that they only have access to dirty salt water to clean the rags they use when they menstruate, which in turn leads them to develop infections and diseases. As a result, women and girls in these areas are taking birth control pills, often stolen from married women, to stop their periods.

Rising sea levels and access to fresh water

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta crisscrossed by rivers, is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and most impacted by the global sea-level rise. The country is experiencing a sea level rise of seven to eight mm (over a quarter of an inch) every year, which puts millions of people at the risk of being displaced by flooding. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that if global warming continues at the present rate, about 17 percent of people in Bangladesh would need to relocate over the next decade.

Environmental journalist Rafiqul Montu offers a reminder of the risk Bangladesh is facing:

Salinity intrusion from the sea-level rise and irresponsible shrimp farming have impacted the freshwater reserves hard in the southwest coastal area of Bangladesh. Women and girls in this region struggle to access fresh water to drink, let alone water for their menstrual cycle.

Menstruation and corresponding social stigma in Bangladesh

The World Bank calculates that 500 million women and girls suffer from period poverty worldwide — they cannot afford menstrual hygiene products — which not only puts the reproductive health of girls and women in danger but also affects their upbringing and livelihood.

There is no reliable data available on the consumption of commercial menstrual pads in Bangladesh. While the usage is high among working women in the capital, in some rural areas, over 80 percent of women use old clothes instead of pads — an age-old practice. Although commercial sanitary pads are increasingly available in rural areas, a large majority of women cannot afford them. This 2018 study, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources and Human Health,” found that women and girls in Bangladesh’s southern coastal region wash their menstrual cloths in saltwater to reuse them.

There is a social stigma associated with menstruation in Bangladesh, and there is a lack of education about menstrual hygiene among girls — many consider it a sickness, and most menstruate privately. The embarrassment for women cleaning menstrual rags in front of men is immense, and even those who can afford sanitary products rarely buy them at regular shops.

The Mongabay report mentions that some girls are taking birth control pills to stop their period cycles altogether, so they no longer have to wash the old rags with unclean salty water. They have seen their elders suffering from skin and genital infections because they cannot access fresh water. However, taking contraceptive pills can have a long-term impact on their health, increasing the risk of blood clots and breast cancer.

The Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey (2014) shows that 40 percent of female students remain absent in school for an average of three days because they are menstruating. Sanitary pads are not readily available in schools or public areas as women are taught to be secretive about their periods. A local sanitary pad company has introduced a corporate social responsibility campaign in Satkhira, which included installing freshwater tanks for women and girls and training them about menstrual hygiene. Some local NGOs also began initiatives to produce affordable menstrual hygiene products. However, these solutions are not enough for a country with over 83 million women.

International development charity United Purpose tweeted about a local initiative to produce affordable pads:

Many people in Bangladesh's conservative society are not open to discussing safe menstrual hygiene practices. In 2015, the Ministry of Education directed that every school in Bangladesh should have a minimum of one toilet per 50 students, a target that has not yet been achieved. All these hurdles have to be crossed for the needed mass awareness of menstrual hygiene management in Bangladesh. However, climate change and sea-level rises are external threats for which Bangladesh alone cannot provide a solution.

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