Nearly 70% of Bangladesh's textile workers are women, but menstruation taboos mean they must skip work when they have their period. Activists say more must be done to raise awareness and provide hygienic aid.
Bangladesh is the second biggest source of textiles for the global clothing market after China. Bangladesh's clothing industry employs about 4 million workers, more than 70% of whom are women.
However, seamstresses working in Bangladesh's burgeoning textile industry have been increasingly suffering from absence of adequate sanitary facilities in their workplace, increasing risks to their health and leading to many skipping work.
Yasmin Akhter (name changed), 30, has been working for the last seven years at a garment factory in Mirpur, an area in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Yasmin, who started working as a seamstress when she was 18 years old, said she experienced many challenges in the workplace when she had her period.
"Many times, I got my period when I was at work, and except the lunch break, I found no time to attend to my needs. Access to clean water in the factory is also not always available," she said adding that there were limited opportunities to dispose of used pads, for example.
Yasmin's problem is the same experienced by thousands of women who have been suffering due to lack of adequate sanitary hygiene in their workplaces.
The Dhaka-based NGO "Karmojibi Nari" (Working Women) said in a recent study that around 95% percent of workers got no break during the average 10-hour-long shift , except for lunch.
Female workers who were having their periods could therefore not respond to their physical needs.
The long shifts also made it impossible for them to change clothes or take a shower. Lack of access to clean water and inadequate sanitary facilities in many factories adds to the problem.
Menstrual hygiene needed
Most of the factories do not pay necessary attention to female workers' hygiene issues, said Kazi Gulsan-ara Dipa, a women's health advocate with Karmojibi Nari.
Gulsan-ara Dipa added that garment factories needed to ensure a female-friendly working environment
Recently, a pilot study conducted by Bangladeshi experts published found that more than two-thirds of the female garment workers used dirty pieces of cloth to absorb menstrual blood.
The study further noted that only 20.5% of the female workers bought sanitary pads, with 78.5% percent using rags and 1% using cotton wool during their periods.
Among many female workers, it was common to use a single piece of cloth all day for period flows, said Ruksana Akhter Rose, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garments Workers Employee League.
"More than two-thirds of the female garment workers use abandoned clothes and dusty cotton wool for their period,” she told DW, adding that many workers could not afford to buy sanitary napkins and were often unaware of menstrual hygiene. Many women also simply skipped work when they had their period.
Female workers shamed and bullied
Taboos around menstruation are still prevalent in Bangladesh's society. Women, especially those from rural areas, are particularly affected.
"I feel ashamed to inform my male supervisor that I need a break, so I take care of it during lunch," seamstress Yasmin said.
Female workers are often subjected to harassment by their male colleagues, Gulsan-ara Dipa told DW. Women are often too ashamed to talk about their period out of fear that they may be bullied or verbally harassed.
Factory owners, however, deny such claims, and say most garment manufacturers are trying to ensure a safe workplace.
Faisal Samad, senior vice-president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said that to tackle health issues, his organization had established 70 medical centers providing a variety of medical services.
In addition to doctors and nurses, some factories were also providing menstrual kits to women, he said.