Our Refugee Crisis Response Must Prioritize Menstrual Health

The humanitarian community must put menstrual hygiene at the core of its global crisis response—starting with better access to clean water, period products and education.

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Women at a migrant camp mostly populated by Venezuelans in Uribia, Colombia, on Oct. 16, 2021. The Venezuelan migrant crisis has left over 114,000 women without proper menstrual health and hygiene resources. (Lismari Machado / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Nearly all the Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country are women and children, a regional tragedy that mirrors a global truth: Refugee crises are women’s crises. And as women’s crises, they demand responses informed by gender-specific needs—including crucial attention to menstrual health and hygiene management.

This is especially true of the Venezuelan migrant crisis, which has left over 114,000 women without proper menstrual health and hygiene resources. In a recent report, our team of researchers found the humanitarian aid community overlooks menstrual hygiene management in its response to this disaster, the second-largest ongoing refugee crisis. 

When it’s present at all, menstrual hygiene aid for Venezuelan migrants is typically limited to a small supply of kits, each with a few single-use cotton pads. 

Because international relief lacks coordinated programs to promote menstrual hygiene, Venezuelan women migrating to Colombia—like women refugees everywhere—face devastating risks of disease and often misunderstand their own bodies. On May 28, Menstrual Hygiene Day, humanitarian organizations should expand migrant access to female-friendly water and sanitation resources, menstrual products and menstrual health and hygiene education.

The need for more deliberate responses is vast and urgent. Colombia alone hosts about 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants. As of 2019, a quarter of reproductive-age women migrants in the country needed menstrual hygiene services

In Colombia and across migrant settings, menstrual hygiene facilities are absent, overcrowded or unsanitary. Without latrines, waste-disposal facilities or clean water and soap for handwashing, women risk developing bacterial vaginosis, reproductive tract infections, Hepatitis B and cervical cancer

Migrants traveling on foot are the most vulnerable to these issues, but temporary settlements also lack water, electricity and adequate waste disposal

Colombia’s infrastructure imposes additional risks of sexual and gender-based violence. These spaces are usually located outdoors in unsafe areas, with broken locks and inadequate separation between men and women. In other displacement crises, too, insufficient privacy heightens menstruating women’s risk of harassment and violence. 

While the United Nations Population Fund distributed 2,300 hygiene kits to Venezuelan migrants in 2019, single-use products provide minimal help, and carrying them is a burden to migrants traveling on foot. Venezuelan migrant women tend to have only products they’ve carried across the border.

Because menstrual products can cost more than 25 percent of Venezuela’s minimum wage, migrants may use unsafe alternatives to pads and tampons, such as cloth, plastic bags or off-brand menstrual products. Other times, migrants use conventional products for too long, causing rashes and infections. Displaced women in Uganda faced these same product-based barriers to sanitary menstruation

Menstrual hygiene may be sidelined while humanitarian agencies focus on other immediate needs for shelter, work or pandemic-related health care. After all, the Venezuelan migration crisis is desperately underfunded. But women’s health and well-being are integral to successful humanitarian work. 

Ultimately, expanding access to products and water and sanitation services will be effective only if it’s supplemented with accurate, culturally appropriate education. As in other lower- and middle-income countries where most refugees live, many Colombian and Venezuelan girls have no information about menstruation at menarche. Some do not know where their menstruation blood comes from or view menstruation as dirty or hazardous

Addressing migrant women’s health also hinges on conquering taboos at home and in schools. Menstrual health and hygiene education must reconcile local cultural practices with women’s right to equality and dignity. Engaging men, boys and elderly women is pivotal. So is training humanitarian workers, school teachers and local leaders on menstrual health and migrant rights.

Implementing a cohesive strategy on menstrual hygiene will lessen strains on healthcare systems, foster trust in the humanitarian aid community and improve women’s quality of life. Consider the numerous studies that link adolescent girls’ absences from school to struggles with menstruation management. Their missing school harms communities economically and socially

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, the humanitarian community must start putting menstrual hygiene at the core of its global crisis response.

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About , and

Millie Brigaud is a research fellow at The Exodus Project and was a 2020 Pulitzer Center student reporting fellow at William & Mary.
Zoha Siddiqui is co-director of The Exodus Project and a 1693 scholar at William & Mary.
Jahnavi Prabhala is the founder and co-director of The Exodus Project and was a 2019 summer fellow at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.