The crux of the toilet paper shortage

By Kerri Whelan
May 8, 2020

We’d have a lot of questions if one year ago, we could have seen photographs of the world we’re living in now. They’d capture cities drained of human life, masked grocery shoppers, playgrounds bound in caution tape and, let’s not forget, empty toilet paper aisles.

The toilet paper shortage made its way across communities even before stay-at-home orders. People stocked up in a panic, and this essential household product couldn’t be found anywhere. It was an initial, subtle jolt making people realize that we were entering a real crisis, and life was about to get a lot less comfortable.

But as we’ve lost easy access to toilet paper, we should think about how we’re missing access to another basic necessity in the bathroom stall — whether there’s a pandemic or not.

When you walk into a public bathroom, you expect toilet paper to be there, for free. You even get free paper towels so that you don’t have to dry your hands on your clothes. So, why do menstrual pads and tampons come at a cost?

Even in our modernized country, it can be difficult for girls to get their hands on period products. Millions of others across the world have it much worse. And now during COVID-19, with families losing their jobs, schools closing their doors, country leaders enforcing lockdowns and health care centers operating at maximum capacity, getting pads and tampons is more difficult than ever.

A survey done by Plan International found that one third of girls and young women in the UK have had difficulty accessing period products during the COVID-19 lockdown. And of that group, more than half have had to use toilet paper as an alternative to pads. But without access to toilet paper, menstruation has been almost impossible to comfortably manage. If this is what’s happening in the UK, how is the pandemic affecting menstrual health in low-income countries?

In Kibera, Kenya — the largest urban slum in Africa — finding menstrual pads is a crisis for girls in itself. Many of the girls rely on their schools to provide menstrual products, but schools have closed their doors to prevent the spread of disease.

“I have to use pieces of cloth, which is very uncomfortable,” 16-year-old Nisera told our local staff. “I can’t sit down because I’m afraid of soiling my clothes.”

Coronavirus has caused severe financial stress for families in Kibera, leaving girls unable to afford menstrual products. And just like periods, menstrual taboos persevere through crises — stigma is at the root of families deprioritizing buying pads for their daughters. Myths about menstruation put girls at an even greater disadvantage than they already are.

“With families stocking up on food and supplies, I can tell you for a fact that the majority of families in my area will not consider stocking up on sanitary towels,” Nisera says. “Those are considered a luxury.”

A girl from Plan’s Girls Advocacy Alliance distributes menstrual pads in Kibera.

In Kenya, Plan is distributing thousands of menstrual pads because of the support of people like you. We’re also providing hygiene kits and feminine products in Zambia, Bolivia, El Salvador and Paraguay. But girls in other areas need your help too. We need your continued support to reach them immediately — not only to provide menstrual products, but also sanitation kits, protection from harm, educational support and other programming to advance girls’ equality during this emergency.

The next time you walk through an empty toilet paper aisle, remember how the shortage is affecting girls, and how the void of another essential — feminine health products — is a constant reality for girls and women everywhere.

Girls need easier access to menstrual health management. We have a lot of work to do to achieve girls’ rights, and COVID-19 is making things much more challenging, but crises give us the opportunity to rise above. This is your chance to do something incredible for girls.