‘Food over sanitary pads’: women in Fiji struggling during pandemic

(TheGuardian) – The first time AnneMary Raduva, 16, and her sister Faith, 13, went shopping for sanitary pads after the coronavirus outbreak hit their home of Fiji, they noticed two things: there were barely any to choose from, and those that were available cost more than before the pandemic.

The Pacific region, which is home to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities, has escaped the worst health impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak, but is feeling the full brunt of its economic effect.

There have only been 18 confirmed cases of the virus in Fiji (all recovered, and no deaths), but travel restrictions have meant that tens of thousands of people across the country have lost jobs associated with tourism, which contributes nearly 40% to Fiji’s gross domestic product – about FJ$2bn (AU$1.4bn) – and directly or indirectly employs over 150,000 people in various industries.

As imports have become limited and incomes have dropped, women in Fiji have reported that prices of sanitary goods have increased by between FJ$0.50 and FJ$3 per packet in a country where the minimum wage is $2.32 an hour.

“Pads are sold from FJ$3 to $7 or more,” said AnneMary. “For a family that is struggling financially, those extra dollars can be stretched to buy an extra loaf of bread, canned tuna, and a slice of butter. This is the reality and we have done our own informal survey and have spoken to a lot of people and the responses are very similar: food over sanitary pads.”

A recent report from Plan International Australiahighlighted severe shortages of female hygiene products, a sharp rise in prices of pads and tampons, and lack of access to basic information and services about menstrual hygiene management, during the pandemic

“Covid-19 lockdowns are causing big problems for people who menstruate. Periods don’t stop during a pandemic, but managing them has become a whole lot harder,” said Susanne Legena chief executive of Plan International Australia.

Women and girls from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu reported widespread issues, with 22% of survey respondents from the Pacific saying they had noticed that period products had become more expensive since the start of the outbreak.

“The price has gone 50 cents up since the Covid-19,” wrote one survey participant. “I have no issue with purchasing, but 50 cents means a lot for poor families.”

“Sometimes I have to forgo buying hygiene products as money will have to be used on food and bills more,” wrote another. “Prices went up as soon as there was a confirmed case of Covid-19 in Fiji.”

For AnneMary and Faith it was a choice they felt women and girls should never have to make. So they started a “dignity kit” campaign, supporting those affected by the twin crises of the pandemic and Tropical Cyclone Harold, which hit Fiji in April.

“We didn’t realise the impact of our dignity kits until we distributed the first 300 kits to cyclone Harold- and Covid-19-affected families and communities. The feedback was very empowering and at the same time, saddening.

“Women and young girls couldn’t access sanitary care items because of the cyclone, and the lockdowns and curfew had halted access for cargo to be freely distributed in the outer islands,” AnneMary said.

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