The silent crisis facing women and girls in rural Papua New Guinea
GOROKA - Last year in May, from Queens Pads PNG here in Goroka, I picked up a large box covered in black tape. The contents of this box were 300 reusable sanitary pads.
Reusable sanitary pads are a big step up from the disposable one-time use sanitary pads currently dominating what is termed the feminine hygiene market.
Queens Pads PNG is a social enterprise that makes and sells sanitary pads and advocates for the Period Poverty cause in rural areas.
The 300 reusable sanitary pads I collected from Queens Pads had been purchased by Kwila Coffee as part of their social impact project to help women in coffee communities in Papua New Guinea.
Initially, whilst I was grateful for the box to support our social programs in the Marawaka community, it hadn’t really dawned on me what the contents of this box meant to the young girls and women of Marawaka.
Arriving at my hosts’ house, I sat with the group of lead women farmers I worked with exchanging pleasantries and catching up with events in their lives.
They eventually inquired about the content of the big black box they had carried from the airstrip.
Since there were male farmers present, I responded carefully that it was 'samting blo ol mama na yangpela meri'. Things to do with mothers and young women. I didn’t want to offend the men within hearing distance.
I’ve found that people in rural settings are more sensitive to off-hand comments especially about taboo subjects like women's reproductive health, hygiene and rights.
I had asked the lead group to organise up to 60 women with their daughters to get these free reusable sanitary pads.
In my ignorance I decided that five pads for each woman was a reasonable number to distribute, hence 300 pads.
At that point I was acting on the assumption that most women knew what a sanitary pad was and that, even in this rural setting, women would know how to use pads.
But my thinking was of a place where women had access to feminine health products.
At the time I had no notion of Period Poverty - the total lack of access to sanitary products because of financial constraints or lack of availability of feminine hygiene products.
Nor did it occur to me that this might have a negative affect and leave women ashamed or inconvenienced by this intimate and recurring event in their lives.
The limitations of rural life force difficult choices between buying oil, salt, soap, clothes, access to health care, education and many other family priorities.
Health hygiene is a secondary matter.
That Saturday, it rained all morning. But when the time subsided, the women - one by one or in small groups – began to arrive.
At first there were about 28 and I gave them four reusable sanitary pads each assuming they knew how to use them.
Then one of them asked if I could explain how to use it, and I responded, “Oh, these are like the sanitary pads sold in the shops in Goroka”.
Most of the women responded with a blank stare, and epiphany dawned: they had little or no idea of what this was.
They stood around me as I started explaining the directions on the packets.
Although in my previous work in rural communities I’d dealt with PAP smears, it didn't dawn on me that pads might not be understood. The realisation shook me.
Anyway, I encouraged the women to ask questions and they asked many. By the end of our chat they understood the pads and I understood about their struggle with Period Poverty.
More women arrived and pads were becoming scarce. I gave them three pads each.
We distributed pads to 82 women in that afternoon.
I explained that all the 300 reusable sanitary pads were a free gift from Kwila Coffee based in Australia.
They couldn't believe people from so far away would care for something so intimate to them.
At the end of the day, all the pads had gone but women and young girls kept coming to inquire about the availability of more.
In our conversations I asked what they used during periods and most said they used traditional materials such soft bark, certain types of leaf or old cloth. Most had never before used pads or tampons.
There was a large group of girls who attended the local Marawaka Primary School.
They had insufficient toilets, inadequate privacy measures and poor water supplies, making it difficult to properly manage their menstrual cycle.
According to UNICEF, 10% of menstruating girls miss school during their menstrual cycle.
This means a girl at school in rural PNG could miss a week of school each month and, if she still attended school, feel shamed as she stained school desks and clothes. How demoralising for a lot of girls.
This was such an issue that the headmaster had brought it up with parents to work out solutions as so many girls were missing school and even leaving school.
Marawaka is in the Obura-Wonenara district where the literacy rate for women is about 31%. Period Poverty may have contributed to this.
By the Saturday evening, we had droves of women arriving at the house asking if we had pads available.
As word spread to more remote villages, a couple of days later women began to trek to our outpost to inquire about free sanitary pads.
We collected the names of the women and girls who were interested in the product. When I left Marawaka a week later I'd collected 625 names.
Then it hit me, this was a big issue in PNG. What of all the girls and women silently facing Period Poverty every month? How could I do more?
It is a mammoth task but not hopeless. We must find a way to help the women and girls in remote Papua New Guinea regardless of the many, many challenges.