“When I get my period here, I feel so bad. I ask, ‘Why do I need to get this period?’ There are so many people around, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s so awkward and embarrassing.” These are the words used by a young Bangladeshi girl living as a refugee in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar. According to statistics, this is now the world’s largest refugee camp with a population of just under 550,000 people.
There are an estimated 68.5 million refugees in our world today, half of whom are women. Many refugee children will even have their first period at a refugee camp, rather than in the safety and comfort of their homes. So what is it like to menstruate in a refugee camp where resources and privacy are scarce?
Often, menstruators will look for anything to use as makeshift pads or tampons. From tissue paper to old rags to even chunks of old mattresses, anything goes as sanitary protection when access to period products is limited. Some accounts from women in refugee camps even detail the practice of washing, drying, and reusing old disposable sanitary napkins.
As refugees are forced to travel light, period products are usually the last thing on their checklist when packing. This, coupled with the fact that most organisations and governmental agencies do not provide period products but focus more largely on other necessities like food and water, puts women at the risk of contracting dangerous infections and illnesses. “It doesn’t rank with the same level of importance because it affects women and girls and oftentimes the decision makers are men,” said Ugochi Daniels from the United Nations Population Fund.
Hygiene and Sanitation
Women confront the lack of hygiene on a daily basis in refugee camps. Najwa Ibrahim, a young woman living in Greece’s Moria Refugee Camp stated, “The toilets are cleaned once a month, and the trash comes out into the path. We were forced to clean the toilet, but we hardly have any water to clean. There is no one cleaning anything.”
Regular access to private, single gender toilets and washing facilities is not guaranteed in refugee camps. Women may not know when and where their next shower or opportunity to change their period product will be, which is both mentally frustrating and physically dangerous.
Refugee camps have been known for their high statistics of sexual assault. The lawlessness, perpetuated by a lack of security and bad policing, impacts women the most, often leaving them afraid and traumatised.
When Meervat Ali, another girl living in the Moria Refugee Camp, has her period, she has to be chaperoned by her mother at all times. “We have to go to the toilet more and it is very, very dirty,” she said. Therefore, her mother is forced to escort her each time she changes her pad. Ali’s mother is very concerned, noting, “When I take her inside, the men look at her, and try to touch her. A lot of men came around our daughter and wanted to take her away.”
Thus, the burden of safety falls on women whose problems are often worsened during their periods.
Hillary Margolis, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “In the context where conditions are already so challenging, and the conditions are so poor, it is just magnified when a woman or girl is faced with having her period.”
However, all hope is not lost. In Uganda’s Rhino Refugee Camp for example, an organisation called WoMena is changing lives through the provision of menstrual cups and reusable pads; The Sanimart Project in the Kutupalong Refugee Camp teaches young women how to make and sell pads; Loving Humanity, a non-profit organisation, buys and installs machines that make sanitary towels and incontinence pads in Zaatari refugee camp. They even employ and teach women to use the machines.
As we solve our world’s biggest problems, let’s not forget that issues are not one-dimensional. The trials and tribulations of women and young girls in refugee camps should not be forgotten – especially when it puts their mental and physical health at risk.