Meet the Women Supplying Refugees with Menstrual Products

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Far left: Helen McDonald, Megan Saliu; Far right: Helen Pudney

Imagine being uprooted from your community and having to flee for your life with just a few of your belongings. Imagine that, on top of having to navigate such hardship, you’re also menstruating. Where would you access pads, tampons, liners? It’s not exactly something that those managing refugees camps would think to prioritize when already attempting to provide clean water, food and shelter.

That’s the situation for many women fleeing the civil war in Syria and crises in other nations. Thankfully, grassroots women’s organizations in the United Kingdom and Germany have been stepping up to do what their governments have not: ensure women can practice safe menstrual hygiene.

Helen McDonald, Megan Saliu and Helen Pudney of Essex, England are some of many activists who have recently been compelled to help Syrian women and refugees from other countries obtain menstrual-hygiene products. Their efforts are focused particularly in one of the biggest refugee camps in western Europe, in the French city of Calais, which has been described by many European news outlets as “the jungle.”

The Calais camp is home to more than 3,000 refugees living in tents, many of whom are from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and increasingly Syria. This summer, McDonald, Saliu and Pudney began organizing drives to send sanitary pads to the camp in response to increased media coverage of the refugee crisis.

McDonald tells the Ms. Blog, “It just seemed like a thing we should do. There were people who needed things we could get and they we so close [Calais and Essex are less than 125 miles apart], why wouldn’t we do it?”

McDonald set up a crowdfunding page in August—around the time news outlets in the U.K. stopped using terms such as “illegal immigrant” and “migrant” to refer to the displaced people and instead started calling them “refugees”—to fund the purchase of menstrual-hygiene products and toiletries. The women immediately began receiving donations. McDonald says:

The next three weeks were a blur of black bin bags full of clothes, driving around Essex collecting donations and being overwhelmed by emails from people wanting to know how they could help.

The trio was able to visit the Calais camp in August, bringing 3,000 sanitary products and funding the purchase of three new tents. McDonald told the Ms. Blog that though volunteers proclaim the camp to be safe for everyone, she fears for the women residing there.

The women we saw were all young, in their early 20s probably, and they were a tiny minority compared to the hundreds and hundreds of men we saw. Also, we can’t expect that cultural attitudes towards women will change just because someone reaches France. There is definitely a clear hierarchy within the camp and, as expected, women and children are not at the top.

Women make up 10 percent of the Calais refugee population. Because of their sex, they are often subject to harassment, assault and some ultimately are forced to take on a male “protector” in exchange for sex.

Considering many of these women faced violent strife in their native countries, terrifying journeys and now adverse conditions in the camp, the comfort of a sanitary pad can bring at least some small, albeit meaningful, relief. 

To support the menstrual-hygiene efforts, donate here.

Photo courtesy of Helen McDonald

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Anita Little was the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

 


Comments

  1. hygiene is a an important aspect in a woman’s life but when such situations occur then its a disaster. Thanks to the support offered by such charities orgnaistaions

  2. Ileana Garcia says:

    This is really important.. do you know of any organization similar in the USA?

  3. (post as EmCeeDee, please) says:

    Yes, menstrual hygiene is very important. Bravo to this group in the UK. (I don’t recall where, but recently – one believable website pointed out that school-age teen girls stay home during their menses. They don’t have menstrual products, and they don’t have water enough to wash the rags they use. So, they miss out on part of their education. How sad. )

  4. Days for Girls International supplies washable feminine hygiene kits to girls in over 87 countries. We have enterprises set up where women learn to sew the kit, and they can sell smaller versions of it for desperate girls all over the world. This gives girls freedom. Freedom to stay in school, freedom from sexual exploitation in exchange for feminine hygiene products, a healthier alternative than rocks, bark, leaves or corn cobs…..really, a global changer. We are working hard in Nepal and other refugee situations all over the world! Check out the website!

  5. Check out Days for Girls International. They make washable menstrual pads that last from 2-4 years. They distribute all over the world, from the US to Africa to Ethiopia (84 countries and 6 continents to be exact). Girls stay home up to 5 days a month due to not having adequate menstrual products to manage their periods. Many end up dropping out, being forced to have sex in trade for pads and end up pregnant at a very young age. Women miss up to 5 days of work a month and are unable to provide for their families. It’s a huge problem. Fortunately, there is a solution. http://www.daysforgirls.org.

  6. Laura Coyle says:

    How is it that you post this article without including a link to help? I would certainly support this. Bless all these women and organizations that are helping.

  7. Elaine Cameron says:

    Good to hear of these initiatives. May I just add that we are donating feminine hygiene articles to our local Perth & Kinross (Scotland) Foodbank – as great a need as the food itself.

  8. menstrual hygeine support is a critical aspect of good humanitarian response. The UN Population Fund has long provided locally appropriate menstrual supplies, underwear, soap, and other “often forgotten” items fow women and girls through regularly distributed “dignity kits”. In many countries, local womens groups help prepare the kits for distribution.

  9. The women are the leaders of changes .

  10. We are a group on Kent who have been going to the Calais camp in the last 3 months to deliver essentials, although up until now this has not included female hygiene products. However, we call see the desperate need for this stuff for the growing number of women. Would someone one of you amazing women in Essex who obviously have lots of really useful experience doing this be prepared to share your expertise?? We are going again in December and I am in the process of trying to source the best, most practical, disposable products now. Your help would be hugely appreciated. Celine, Kent

  11. Transformation Textiles manufacturers 3 year Dignity Kits amongst a wide range of re-usable products.
    https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1YM-e7l5cgZWrhT-XSdVcHJBCe4zkxhzih4cagRR3htI/edit?usp=sharing

    Although menstrual health needs are paramount in situations of crisis, the logistics and costs associated with delivering a monthly consumable products to vulnerable girls and women can be cost prohibitive and unsustainable. To help alleviate this, the 3 Year EVA Dignity kits are now available for procurement, and are suitable for a wide range of sizes and absorbency needs, providing enough re-usable protection for a user to manage an entire menses cycle (including essential tie-on undergarments).

    EVA products are available in two convenient distribution points (Free Trade Zone in Alexandria Egypt; and Nairobi, Kenya).
    Transformation Textiles is able to offer air cargo or sea freight delivery to any customs port

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