Providing Essential Unmentionables to Women In Refugee Camps

What happens when a women flees violence and arrives in a country with entirely different social and cultural norms? How are her fundamental rights, like bodily autonomy and reproductive safety, uprooted and abandoned when she’s trapped in a zones of precariousness? What essential products are sacrificed in times of motion and uncertainty?

Dominic Wenger / Creative Commons

The answers to these broad questions can be tied to a simple manufactured good that often goes unmentioned: underwear.

Underwear is but one of many unmentionable products that is seldom prioritized in refugee and crisis settings. “Unmentionable products are often overlooked by immediate humanitarian relief aid, particularly because of cultural taboos,” said Kaleigh Heard, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Unmentionables, a nonprofit organization that provides undergarments, sexual health and feminine hygiene products, as well as related education programs to refugees in Greece. At present, areas affected by conflict receive 50 percent less funding for such products and services than non-conflict zones.

The international failure to provide intimate aid leaves thousands of upended women fleeing war-torn regions without access to tampons, pads, underwear, birth control and other forms of reproductive care. This in turn places their health and safety in extreme jeopardy. When women don’t have access to underwear, tampons and pads, the likelihood of infections and other hygienic issues skyrockets. In war-torn regions and refugee camps, such health problems are exasperated by an absence of medical centers that are equipped to treat woman’s reproductive health needs.

More than three-quarters of women recently interviewed by the Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) in a camp in Chios, Greece said they had experienced significant health problems since arriving at the camp due to unsanitary conditions and an absence of necessary reproductive health services. Of the women who reported that they experienced health issues in Chios, less than a third—30.3 percent—had been able to access some form of medical care.

Moreover, the environments of stress and uncertainty within refugee camps spark higher occurrences of rape, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. 82.4 percent of women interviewed by the RRDP said they “never feel safe” or “don’t feel very safe.” 42.9 percent of women reported experiencing some form of violence inside the camps, and in particular did not feel safe when using showers.

“I don’t go to the toilets at night,” one woman said. “It’s too far, and I’m too scared to go alone. I have to wait till morning. I couldn’t sleep, the nights felt like they were so long.” A follow-up report by the RRDP exposes a “critical absence of adequate medical and psychosocial support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.” Marta Welander, RRDP director, also pointed out that the report sheds light on the need for designated safe spaces within all camps. Without such support, women’s health and safety will continue to hang by a thread.

Through community-based health measures that directly target women’s needs, the Unmentionables is effectively helping women find safe and effective solutions. Because cultural taboos vary from county to country, site-specific assessments allow the Unmentionables to ensure not only that women are receiving the type of care and services that the international communities regards as fit, but that these solutions are realistic and attainable for each and every woman. For instance, many refugee women use injectable contraceptives and implants—a reliable option for women on the move. However, such methods are not available in Greece, where women primarily use condoms, pills and IUD’s. Yet, religious norms and deep-seated chauvinism make these options impractical for women who land in Greece after fleeing countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Far to often, an idea poses as a solution in theory but not in practice. By traveling to the camps and speaking directly with women, the Unmentionables is able to close the critical gap between efficacy and effectiveness. Site-specific assessments, coupled with critically conscious solutions, ensure that women receive the support they need.

Despite being some of the most overlooked forms of aid, unmentionable products are undeniably necessary, as their absence impacts far more than just matters of health. To safeguard women’s access to these products and services is to ensure that they have more control in uncertain environments—and more of the tools necessary to overcome the challenges of displacement.

Jessica Merino has divided her time over the last several years between Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz and exploring and reporting on women’s issues across cultures. She has interned with the White House-recognized organization Girls Write Now, Creative Time Reports and a startup social enterprise where she shared the stories of South East Asian women artisans with the international community. She is now an editorial intern at Ms., where she reports on issues related to women’s health.

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