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