Feminine Hygiene in Cuba: Inventions and other Rags

By Glenda Boza Ibarra and Sabrina Lopez Camaraza  (El Toque)

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

HAVANA TIMES – During the Special Period’s toughest years, some Psychology students from the Central University in Las Villas, used the “Rorschach test“ during their menstrual cycle. This is a psychological test that is used to examine a person’s personality characteristics. It involves a series of sheets with inkblots, that are ambiguous in shape and lack structure.

In the ‘90s, those university students from UCLV named cloths, cut-outs from sheets, and gauze used to absorb their menstrual flow (which they had to share because there weren’t enough for every woman), with what the blood stains left on the fabric looked like. They didn’t have sanitary towels.

In many families, women also boiled white cloths (which inevitably end up somewhat yellow after some time) and they lent those “menstruation rags” to each other. Sometimes, it was very difficult because many women live in the same household, and their menstrual cycles normally synchronize.

Almost thirty years later, “Rorschach tests” are being “hung up” in many Cuban homes again. In the face of shortages, many women have had to resort to medical gauze, old sheets…

The economic crisis and shortages, aggravated in the more than ten months of COVID-19, have had a significant impact on a matter that is barely spoken about, and which is key in women’s lives: their intimate hygiene.

Every month, menstration comes…

In Santa Clara, tampons at the international clinic (which sells in USD) went on sale because they were going to expire in October, and they have been sold out since September.

“Normally, people don’t buy these things because they are very expensive. However, because we had nothing else, “they flew off the shelves”,” a sales assistants noted.

There’s no doubt about it, sanitary towel shortages are affecting women’s lives the most. Dania Linares, a 47-year-old woman from Matanzas, says that hormonal changes that come with her age, have put her in a real tough spot.

“I had a heavy flow for 49 days and I was forced to buy sanitary towels from people who no longer use them. I bought ten packets from the shopping mall at the beginning of the pandemic, they were 0.70 CUC each, and then I bought one for 2.70 CUC, which were the worst in the world for the problem I have right now.”

According to Dania, shortages are even hitting resellers. Despite raising prices too high, they provide a fix for some of the population.

“Everything has run out; and they only come into the drugstore every now and then,” Dania says. “In November, they dispatched what should have been sold in July and August. In December, they had to sell for September, October, November and December, as if women weren’t having their periods for months on end.”

When her menstrual flow is light again, Dania normally uses toilet paper. “Luckily I had some. I was looking for antiseptic bandages or gauze, but there aren’t any. There are days I put on a sanitary towel and my period doesn’t come – but I’ve already used that one -, and there are days I’m not wearing anything and then I suddenly get my period and stain my underwear.”

Doctor Arelis Leon Rodriguez, a specialist at the America Arias OB-GYN Teaching Hospital said that so-called “intimas” (or sanitary towels) should be changed every four hours during days with normal bleeding.

“When blood comes into contact with oxygen, it begins to emit a bad odor; plus, using a sanitary towel for longer than what’s indicated can expose us to germs and bacteria, as blood is also an excellent breeding ground for them.”

However, very few Cuban women can respect this hygiene ideal during their period.

“Most of us use one in the morning and another one in the evening because we don’t have any more. Not to mention that Mariposas [the brand of sanitary towels] – produced nationally and sold in drugstores for 1.20 pesos (CUP) per packet – are so thin and bad in quality, that you really don’t have any other choice but to wear two,” Maria de los Angeles Lao says.

At the beginning of the pandemic, sanitary towels were included on the list of essential products that were to be sold in regular pesos (CUP) and CUC. However, they disappeared from stores and reappeared in some of the US dollar (MLC) stores, which most Cuban women don’t have access to.

“I had to buy the packets I have at the dollar store, buying the dollars on the street,” Maria de los Angeles says. “In addition to using gauze, I have had to “get by” with stuffing in diapers because there isn’t any cotton wool or packets on the black market for 10, 15 or 20 pesos. People have told me about menstrual cups, but we don’t have this culture here in Cuba, or people who can bring them to us from abroad.”

In 2016, a Vietnamese factory was approved to make disposable diapers and feminine hygiene products in the Mariel Special Development Zone, which seemed to be a solution. However, after two years of operating, Thai Binh Global Investment Corp. hasn’t been able to ensure a stable supply of disposable feminine hygiene products on the Cuban market.

Nor has the National Company of Sanitary-Hygiene Materials (MATHISA) – with factories in Havana, Sancti Spiritus and Granma. They are unable to get their products to the drugstore network “on time”. Outdated technology and problems with getting raw materials are given as the main obstacles. Likewise, a lack of funding, board members have explained over the years.

With the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, and even though sanitary towels are still subsidized when available in drugstores, this isn’t a product that women can go without, or wait indefinitely for.

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

Homemade shampoo

At 22 years old, Melisa Barreto, a student at the University of Havana, has gone back to living in the Special Period. The crisis of personal hygiene items has turned her into one of the thousands of Cubans who long for basic products every day to uphold their personal hygiene.

In Mantua, the small town in Pinar del Rio where she lives, the situation is unbearable.

“I came home in March and left my things at my dorm because of the haste of the situation. I had to use the shampoo my sister and mother had, which lasted until April, more or less. Then, a liquid detergent appeared and my mom and I had to use it to wash our hair. We left the shampoo for my sister who will be 15 years old soon and needs to look after her hair.”

Ever since then, Melisa and her mother have found cheap alternatives, depending on their situation.

“I’ve been washing my hair with soap for the past five months now. My hair is straight and it’s awful for it. I look like a witch right now, but I have to deal with it. I’m a student, I have no income. My parents’ wages are barely enough to put food on the table,” she explains.

Melisa only finds shampoo in the USD stores or for 300 pesos a bottle, with resellers.

“I haven’t bought the homemade shampoo being sold around, because it hasn’t worked for my friends.”

The Mantua municipality has six bodega stores in the urban area that sell rationed items. They each serve an average of 850 households. According to the interviewee, when there was more stock available, only 500 personal hygiene baskets arrived to be distributed.

Shampoo and conditioner have pretty much disappeared altogether in Havana. There were very few places where these products were being sold, which weren’t easy to get a hold of. When the dollar stores opened, washing your hair with shampoo became a dream.

“I have no way of buying it at a USD store and I’ve no other choice but to buy from resellers,” Vida says. She decided to shave her hair off, as an immediate solution.

This also happened to Mario Ramos, a university student who also had to cut his hair after a year of growing it out.

“Shampoo shortages have affected men too,” he says. “I had to shave all my hair off so that my mother could make the most of the shampoo we did get. Here, in Las Tunas, there were some hairdresser’s who were charging 30-50 pesos to wash hair, just a few months ago. Of course I had to shave it off!”

Airports reopening and so-called “mules” haven’t been able to make up for the high demand for hair cleaning and care products either. Add to this the fact that prices have gone through the roof, because of shortages, and many products have been tampered with.

“Careful with the Keratine they’re selling on the street, it’s being adulterated with formoldehyde and washing up liquid,” many women warned in the Donde Hay Villa Clara group, on Telegram.

According to some of these women, as well as being tampered with, bottles of shampoo, conditioner and hair treatment or styling products bought off TuEnvio or sold in stores as part of hygiene baskets, had less product in them than what’s advertised on the packaging. “You can tell just by looking at them that they are missing an inch or two.”

Many Cubans have turned to natural products. At the Labiofam store on Marti street in Santa Clara, aloe vera shampoo is highly sought-after. However, demand outweighs supply just like everywhere else.

On the Isle of Youth, Andrea Matienzo has also discovered a pretty decent recipe, which she shares with her friends.

“We are making homemade shampoo: three ribs of aloe vera, a cup of honey, a spoonful of brown sugar and a bit of grated soap. You mix it all together and then put it on low heat, and when it’s about to boil, you turn it off and let it cool down,” she explains.

According to her, the last time stores there were well-stocked was back in February, last year.

“Since the pandemic began, we’ve only been sold shampoo and conditioner once, in August. It was via the ration booklet: one bottle of shampoo and conditioner per household. One bottle for four women, in my case,” she says. “Then, shampoo was sold once at the drugstore, but it didn’t last very long. The only place you can find it now is in the dollar stores; so we continue to use homemade aloe vera shampoo that leaves our hair quite soft.”

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

Family Guardians

In spite of the struggle for gender equality, most Cuban women still take on household chores as “their responsibility”. Maybe this is why they are the ones who most lament the lack of detergent, washing up soap and shower gel – just to mention some cleaning products.

Even though Dania has two children in the US who help her financially, she has also suffered these shortages. Before the dollar stores popped up, she had to wait in long lines to buy any cleaning or personal hygiene item.

To wash dishes, she prepared a mixture of grated soap, baking soda and a small cup of vinegar in a liter of water. “You put this mixture on the stove for 30 minutes and then add two liters of water.”

“For the floor, I made a paste that works like detergent. I grated a bar of soap in half a liter of water and then put it on the stove to boil. Afterwards, I added a cup of detergent in half a liter of water and boiled it all with a spoonful of salt and vinegar,” she explains. “This gets rid of the grime but not the grease, so you can forget trying to make your tiles shine.”

Milagros Quesada says that her family hasn’t caught COVID-19 “by chance”.

“Washing hands and masks is the most important thing. But barely having soap or detergent, it’s been very hard to follow these measures strictly. On top of that, I’m allergic to chlorine and I can’t stick disinfectant solutions on my hands. But trying to get a hold of alcohol is even worse.”

At the beginning of 2020, the minister of Domestic Trade announced that the supply of personal hygiene items would be stabilized as of April. Our reality has been otherwise. Almost a year after this announcement, a regular supply of these products is still pending.

“Here in Las Tunas, personal hygiene products sold via the rations booklet have saved us. That is even if you have to spend a whole day or two in line to get it,” Milagros says. “Of course, it’s up to me or my retired mother to spend long hours standing. We do it sometimes even when we don’t know what’s going to be sold at the store.”

According to her, people stand in lines outside the Mercado Leningrado in Buena Vista for “whatever comes”.

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

Healing body and soul

In mid-2020, Beatriz and her husband began IVF treatment in Santa Clara. There, the doctor recommended that both of them take a Vitamin E supplement, 1000 IU preferably, which are available abroad.

“My husband has low sperm motility and I’ve had surgery to remove a tumor from my ovaries. We were told to take these pills, but I have no way of getting a hold of them,” Beatriz says. “At the drugstore, 250mg pills are in shortage and we’d have to take four of these every day for three months.”

Beatriz shares her desperation: “I don’t care if they’ve expired, if they sell them to me, or if they give them to me bit by bit. I’ve been given the all clear from my cancer and I can now finally try and get pregnant.”

Irregular medicine supplies have affected both men and women in Cuba. Nevertheless, the lack of contraception and medicines used to treat vaginal infections or STDs, have affected Cuban women’s sexual health and family planning quite significantly.

Even though it dates back to 2010, an article published in the Revista Cubana de Obstetricia y Ginecologia states that the most common vaginal infection on the island is bacterial vaginosis, followed by vulvovaginal candidiasis and trichomoniasis. These mainly caused by stress, inadequate daily genital and anal hygiene and during a woman’s period, to name a few.

“Without sanitary towels, toilet paper, soap, condoms and everyday worries, I don’t know how my body hasn’t fallen apart,” says Mayra, a resident in Santa Clara’s Parroquia neighborhood.

“Water runs dark here almost all year round. There’s no way of getting rid of its murkiness even when you boil it.Washing yourself like this is always a risk,” she laments.

Mayra says that even though she mixes water with salt and a bit of iodine solution (when she can find it), her vaginal discharge normally changes all the time.

“On top of that, metronidazole, nystatin or clotrimazole tablets – which are recommended for specific infections – can’t always be found and you have to do with whatever you have: whether that’s old tablets or brews,” she explains.

“There aren’t any condoms either and you’re exposed to every vaginal infection or STD when you have unprotected sex, even if you have a steady partner,” Mayra concludes.

Milagros Quesada complains about painkillers not being readily available. “My daughter has cramps that “have her crumpled on the floor”, she explains to illustrate her pain. “I sometimes put hot water compresses on her pelvis and it helps a little. Other times, the pain is so strong that I have to take her down to the polyclinic to get an injection.”

“I just hope that 2021 is a better year,” Milagros sighs.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


One thought on “Feminine Hygiene in Cuba: Inventions and other Rags

  • January 21, 2021 at 6:20 am
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    This is truly outrageous. The problems described tell a lot of where things are at in Cuba after 62 years of revolution. I’ve always felt that if men had periods, or at least showed some empathy, and shared the domestic responsibilities, if transportation officials had to ride the buses, if agricultural officials had to work part of their time in the fields, and if factory managers had to wait in the lines, some of Cuba’s greatest problems could be effectively addressed. The policy makers and implementers have failed bigtime and have a tremendous habit of falling over the same stones time and time again. But with no public accountability and a few tiny privileges, or big ones in some cases, the desire for change is just not there. It’s all quite sad.

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