Women from all walks of life who are menstruating find themselves impacted by the convergence of period poverty and climate change-related events such as water scarcity, so much so that gender dimensions, including the effects on health, sanitation, and well-being, are concerning. Under the constraints of water scarcity, especially during their periods, some run the risk of developing reproductive and urinary tract infections and other illnesses. Period poverty can also take a mental toll and impact their general well-being.
Under GirlsCare Jamaica‘s Envisioning Resilience Programme, Danelle Fraser and Ishshah Brooks recently produced photo projects that addressed water scarcity in certain communities in the capital, Kingston. Fraser’s focus was in the Rose Town area of a community called Garden Lane. “For years, we have not had water in the community,” she explained. “Our community handcart guy would risk his life [across gullies] on a daily basis to fetch water for us [from] other communities that have water due to projects funded by the government.”
Fraser has lived in Garden Lane for 32 years, and says that water scarcity has always been an issue. Now, however, climate change-related events are exacerbating the situation:
Where I live, a majority of the homes have outside bathrooms with flush toilets. After using the bathroom, we have to either reuse water or get the handcart man to fill buckets and other containers with water for us to flush our toilets.
Fraser explained that households with girls and women “have to do what we have to do” to practice menstrual hygiene management amidst little to no potable water. This is compounded by the fact that many people within the community do not have a steady income, and they are reticent to take the risk to fetch the water themselves given the crime situation in certain neighbouring communities. She continued, “At times, it’s hard to the point where some people have to use half a bucket of water, or way less than they normally would, to clean up. As Jamaicans say, ‘We clean up the possibles.’”
In cases where there is no access to water in any way, community members pool their money to buy water from water trucks. There are even times when neighbours borrow water from one another and return the container or bucket filled with water at a later time.
Brooks’s project, meanwhile, highlighted water scarcity in Kingston's Richmond Park, where her sister lives. The area has steadily been becoming more commercial:
A lot of businesses establish themselves in or near the community. That changes the landscape and land structure with the removal of trees, which, in turn, impacts the amount of rainfall we get. [M]ost of the residents have either moved out or sold their property … so, the businesses come in, buy the plots of land, and develop their complexes.
With that, Brooks said, the National Water Commission “tends to sometimes prioritise the monetary factor over the social impact. This means that the water supply is often relocated to suit the business community. That results in water restrictions for the residential community. Add to that the prohibition on water usage in the area because of drought. It’s bad.”
Brooks’s sister faces daily water restrictions and feels the impact more deeply because of her two daughters. She has to worry about finding water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing, especially if they are on their periods:
My sister shared that it is a burden to operate under the situation of water restrictions that impact her family all while paying high water bills every month and not being able to get running water whenever they need it.
Though both projects highlight a myriad of issues and concerns, period poverty remains part of the experience of water scarcity. Without easy access to clean, flowing water, general sanitation and menstrual hygiene management become pressing concerns. For many, it calls into question how gender justice occurs and how people who menstruate are able to manage.
At the other end of the Caribbean archipelago, in Trinidad and Tobago, Chantal Laing, founder of the sustainable period advocacy organisation Sustainabelle TT, stressed that though droughts can lead to water scarcity, an excessive amount of rainfall and flooding can also result in the same outcome and exacerbate period poverty concerns:
With flooding comes the contamination of water supplies with sewage and other contaminants, which would make water unsafe to use. I find that when there is a lot of rain, it becomes difficult [for the Water and Sewerage Authority] to give people water. Something about water turbidity. So, even though there’s a lot of rain, you actually don’t get the clean water in your pipes, and sometimes you don’t get water at all as a result of flooding.
Many households in the twin-island republic have water tanks because of the unreliability of the water supply — but Laing noted this is a luxury that not everyone can afford:
This then spirals into people losing their education and employment opportunities. If you constantly don’t have access to water and you can’t afford to have that backup supply, you can see where women, girls, and other menstruators are negatively impacted. If you can’t clean yourself properly, especially during your period when you need to think about your hygiene a bit more, you end up losing opportunities.
Sustainable TT has been advocating for the use of more environmentally friendly, reusable menstrual products as a way to directly combat period poverty amidst occurrences like climate change events, just as HerFlow Foundation has been doing in Jamaica.
A key part of the conversation around the climate crisis involves single-use plastics. While some Caribbean territories have bans in place on some single-use plastics, “it is nowhere near enough,” according to HerFlow's executive director Shelly-Ann Weeks, who believes that “if [regional] governments are really serious about banning single-use plastics, then menstrual products must join the party.” She also hopes that cultural norms about women's bodies change. “To be on your period does not mean that you are unclean,” she explained, pointing out that this belief also contributes to period poverty by perpetuating shame.
Both Laing and Weeks believe that the use of sustainable period products is critical in adjusting to the climate change events that worsen period poverty. Though water will still be needed for sanitation and menstrual hygiene management, the amount of water required reduces and, by extension, the need to spend more every month decreases, as well.
In the end, climate change events and period poverty are not mutually exclusive; one contributes to the extent to which the other happens, which, left unchecked, can lead to a number of other negative repercussions.