Periods in Refugee Camps
BY: NOra Ransibrahmanakul
Menstruation- an anatomical process whose mention in day-to-day interactions sparks shame and embarrassment. For many in the United States, it brings back memories of an uncomfortable lesson in elementary school, full of giggling students and exasperated teachers.
Often heralded as a mark of womanhood, periods are a universal experience for many around the world. And yet, they are enshrouded in taboo and disrupt the lives of many at-risk females. For refugees especially, menstruation comes with educational, societal, and sanitation issues.
In first world countries, there is a common fear “leaking” at schools or workplaces. It is an unsaid rule to hide your pads in a bag or pocket; periods are not an acceptable dinner table topic. However, it is important to acknowledge the different degrees of hardship in the context of location and income; taboos are prevalent worldwide, but there are disparities between the availability and quality of menstrual care.
It is a privilege to be able to buy pads or tampons at your local convenience store and to live with confidence in the availability of secure and clean bathrooms. Many girls will never have to experience only having rags for cleaning themselves as they make a dangerous trek towards another country. It is only by acknowledging the similarities, as well as the differences, in our experiences that we can all move towards a more equitable world.
As of the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million displaced individuals in the world. Half of them are women. The living conditions in refugee camps are a far cry from ideal; there may be no safe running water, sanitation, shelters, or medical care. For menstruating women, this may manifest in having no safe and private place to take care of their hygienic needs, or a lack of access to menstruation products.
Refugee Camp Conditions Around the World
These issues run rampant in the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos island, Greece. Interviews found that girls were afraid to leave their tents at night, in a disturbing display of a lack of privacy and safety2. A significant area of stress was the bathroom area; several interviewees expressed concerns about privacy and sexual assault. One girl refused to go to the bathroom at night, while another had to have other women stand guard for her while she took a shower. The camp was always low on sanitary supplies, giving as few as 2 pads per person.
A study conducted in refugee camps in Lebanon and Myanmar had many of the same issues recorded. The refugee camps often lacked adequate hygienic facilities like bathrooms. It also brought to light more of the organizational setbacks for the distribution of education and sanitary items. Staff members struggled to give guidance to the women about their menstrual hygiene, which is an issue because of the lack of education that is already prevalent in third world countries. Additionally, confusion was caused by the lack of coordination between a wide range of organizations, objectives, and products used in the refugee camps.
Reuters reported on the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. Deplorable sanitation conditions led to urinary tract infections in over half the women. 60% of the women there were unable to find any undergarments; the percentage without products like pads and tampons is undoubtedly much higher. Many women resorted to makeshift supplies like old mattress pieces, rags, and moss. In stressful conditions such as refugee camps, the effects of these shortcomings result in effects on physical and mental health. Cultural taboos and leaks from ineffective sanitary supplies result in a lack of mobility, access to foods and services, and information from interactions.
One of the most influential names in the effort to bring menstrual health to high-risk areas is Arunachalam Muruganantham. He came from a small town in southern India, and never had much money. In 1998 he realized his wife had to use dirty rags for her periods because pads were too expensive, and set out to bring affordable pads to rural areas. He ran into many issues when he first started; his only option for testing his creations was attaching a makeshift uterus filled with animal blood to himself. Muruganantham’s inquests cost him his relationships with his village, wife, and family. Despite these setbacks, he continued trying to build a machine to transform cellulose, the material that commercial pads are made of, into cost-effective pads.
His machine, which created pads by breaking down, packing, wrapping in cloth, and disinfecting cellulose pads, won a national award. He didn’t seek fame and instead focused on helping bring jobs and sanitation to rural women and girls. The 1,000 dollar machine takes 10 people to make 250 pads per day. His work has gone on to inspire others in the movement for accessible menstrual care. Amy Peake was inspired by Arunachalam Muruganantham and began distributing his machine to refugee camps. Her organization Loving Humanity brought a factory to the Syrian refugee camp, Zaatari, in 2016.
Some refugee women have taken the problem into their own hands; Rohingya women in a Bangladesh refugee camp work in a factory to make menstrual products for the other women. This camp is a prime example of the issues that arise from lacking menstrual care, as well as some of the creative solutions that can be implemented. By replacing the old rags they had been using with the new fabric sanitary napkins, diseases like leukorrhea and gonorrhea were reduced. The factory is a place for earning wages, as well as socialization; it is a prime example of a solution with multifaceted benefits.
Refugee camps can be considered one of the most inconvenient places for menstruating women. The inability to access proper supplies can result in consequences for womens’ health and social lives. Luckily, many organizations and individuals have taken up the challenge of providing this essential commodity. In the future, be on the lookout for more inspiring groups working toward making menstruation an easier process for all.