Menstruation and Humanitarian Aid: Period Poverty in Gaza

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

Sophia Rubbo

Sophia Rubbo holds a BA in International Affairs and Spanish, with minors in Political Science and History, from George Washington University. She has interned at MEPC, the Embassy of Jordan, the National Organization for Women, and in the Office of Senator Bernie Sanders. Sophia will spend the next year working as an English teacher in Madrid, before returning to the US to pursue a degree in Human Rights Law.

Since Israel’s military operation on Gaza began, following Hamas’ attack on October 7, Gazans have been denied access to food, medical supplies, and everyday necessities by increased Israeli restrictions and military operations. In February, the UN warned that famine looms on the horizon as aid trucks have been prevented from entering the Gaza Strip. Even with new aerial aid drops and maritime deliveries, Gazans still do not have access to the bare necessities needed to survive. The women of Gaza have been hit especially hard, with the siege preventing critical feminine hygiene products, such as menstrual pads and tampons, as well as basic necessities like fresh water, soap, and toilet paper, from entering the enclave. Israel’s military operation has exacerbated period poverty; accordingly, feminine hygiene products, in addition to food, water, and medical supplies, should be expediently provided in aid packages to women in Gaza.

The National Library of Medicine defines “period poverty” as “the lack of access to safe and hygienic menstrual products during monthly periods and inaccessibility to basic sanitation services or facilities as well as menstrual hygiene education.” Period poverty and menstrual equity are emerging fields of advocacy across the world. Campaigns addressing Period poverty often focus on issues such as providing free menstrual products in schools, removing “luxury taxes” from feminine hygiene essentials, bringing more menstrual necessities to vulnerable communities, ensuring feminine hygiene in conflict zones, and generally improving access to these critical products. 

This acute accessibility issue forces women and girls to use alternative materials as menstrual products, which are not only unsanitary but can lead to major health risks. Menstrual product scarcity also often leads women to use the few products they do have, such as pads, tampons, and menstrual cups, for longer than recommended. Using unsanitary materials to manage periods or prolonged menstrual product use can cause health issues such as urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, menorrhagia (prolonged menstrual bleeding), or an abnormal discharge. Furthermore, reports indicate that when women lack access to basic menstrual products, some choose to become pregnant to avoid their menstrual cycle, leading to unwanted, poorly timed, or unhealthy pregnancies, high-risk abortions, and elevated rates of maternal mortality. Menstrual products are also essential for women who have just given birth and are experiencing postpartum bleeding

While some limited aid has made its way into Gaza, NPR claims that “the aid trucks that are coming in are mostly packed with food, filtered water or medical aid – not with the items that women need to deal with their cycles.” The UN claims to have distributed more than 41,000 “hygiene kits,” which include menstrual pads; however, this is not sufficient for the more than one million women in the Gaza Strip. In the first three months of the war, at least 70 trucks containing feminine hygiene products and other essentials were prevented from crossing the border. Even if all of these products had made their way to their intended destinations, they would still not carry enough supplies to fulfill the needs of the women of Gaza. 

In a war zone, the health risks posed by period poverty are exacerbated and compounded by other issues. Women in Gaza have resorted to using makeshift pads constructed from towels, tents, used clothing, and other objects, which are unsanitary and increase the risk of infection. Because Israel has routinely targeted medical facilities in Gaza, prevented medical supplies from entering the region, and engaged in military operations that have resulted in the deaths or mass displacement of medical professionals, women in Gaza face extreme challenges in receiving necessary treatment, including for infections. Limited clean water forces women to make the difficult choice between hydration and sanitation. 

Stories from the Gaza Strip of women and girls struggling to maintain dignity in a war zone are harrowing. Mother of five Noura Atta told the Washington Post that while UNRWA distributed some pads at her daughters’ school, there are not nearly enough supplies. The news outlet shared that she has “taken to cutting up dirty cloths for her daughters. Without water or privacy, they have no way to clean themselves or their underwear.” 27-year-old Sarah shared with The Guardian that “the impending arrival of my menstrual period has become a nightmare for me. I have to share a bathroom with more than 100 women and children. There are no sanitary pads or painkillers available in pharmacies and all the supermarkets here are closed because they have run out of goods. The Israeli bombing is terrifying, but it becomes even more horrifying when I have my period.” Hind Khoudry, a contributor to the Middle East Eye in Gaza, became homeless at the start of the war: “My last period was my worst, because I am homeless, I am living out of my backpack, there’s no access to toilets or anything. Any products that you do find now are of bad quality, they can cause irritations and they can be unhealthy to use… it is making me stressed about my next period.”

Women have resorted to taking menstruation-delaying pills to cope with the conditions created by Israel’s assault. Norethisterone pills are typically prescribed for extreme medical situations, such as abnormal menstrual bleeding or endometriosis, and are not recommended for prolonged use. Despite the potential side effects of taking the medication to delay a period as opposed to for a medical condition, many women in Gaza have begun to view it as a necessity. However, as the war has progressed, obtaining these pills has become more difficult, making even this already poor option unattainable for most women. 

It is difficult to determine the exact amount of feminine hygiene products included in aid, as they are often lumped under “hygiene” or “medical” categories that don’t specify exactly how much is allocated specifically to women’s hygiene and medical issues. However, when funding is not specifically allocated to women’s health issues, women’s health issues are overlooked. In order to address this, the United Nations, United States, and international aid agencies need to set aside money specifically to address period poverty, in addition to food, water, and medicine, in humanitarian crises. Menstruation does not stop during a war or humanitarian crisis – neither should our attention to the everyday struggles of Gazan women for dignity.

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

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