The U.S. Is Failing Women and Girls at the U.S-Mexico Border

A woman hangs clothes at the Pan de Vida shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 29, 2022. She and other migrants wait for an opportunity to cross into the U.S. and request political asylum. (Christian Torres/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Enforced by both the Trump and Biden administrations, Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act has caused extreme overcrowding, water scarcity and unsanitary conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2020. Now, the Biden administration is expanding its use of Title 42, while creating a pathway for a limited number of Venezuelan migrants with U.S. sponsors to enter the country legally each month. 

The U.S. is woefully unprepared to handle the coming influx that has built up for more than two years. As asylum claims mount and U.S. immigration enforcement struggle to process them, border communities will remain overcrowded and detention centers will quickly fill up. Without deliberate humanitarian intervention, displaced Venezuelans at the U.S.-Mexico border will continue to suffer in inhumane conditions.

What can’t be overstated is the degree to which women and girls bear the brunt of this suffering.

Under Title 42, U.S. immigration enforcement turned away nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border—ostensibly to mitigate COVID-19 spread and protect public health. With nowhere else to go, many of these migrants remained at the border, straining already limited resources like clean water, medical care and shelters. While lack of resources affects all migrants, migrants who menstruate face particular acute and chronic health risks.

For menstruating migrants, urinary tract infections can result from dehydration and lack of personal hygiene. Diseases as serious as cervical cancer and Hepatitis B also arise from poor menstrual hygiene. Health complications also arise when these migrants––due to a shortage of menstrual hygiene products––reuse dirty menstrual products or resort to alternatives, as unsafe as plastic bags.

These same issues arose while conducting needs assessments with Venezuelan migrants in Colombia in 2019. Despite the funding and humanitarian assistance reaching these migrants, the international humanitarian community lacks a coordinated response to provide menstrual hygiene management to displaced Venezuelans at the U.S.-Mexico border, in Colombia, or elsewhere. Preset questionnaires paid no attention at all to asking migrants about their menstrual health and hygiene needs.

Years later, humanitarian agencies tasked with collecting data and administering aid still overlook menstruation and other women’s health needs. While humanitarian actors do provide hygiene kits with menstrual products to migrant communities, menstrual health and hygiene needs go far beyond single-use products.

The humanitarian community must implement a coordinated program to address menstrual health and hygiene at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere. Scholars and advocates have long called for such a program. A proper menstrual hygiene management intervention should seek to provide participants with access to clean water, medical care, female-friendly sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and waste disposal facilities, appropriate menstrual products, and menstrual health and hygiene education.

The humanitarian community must implement a coordinated program to address menstrual health and hygiene at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere.

Border wall between Mexico and the United States of America in El Paso, Texas. (Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash)

The Exodus Project has proposed several menstrual health and hygiene interventions that are cost-effective, creative, and will have both a short and long-term impact on female migrants’ physical and mental wellbeing. For example, water, sanitation, and hygiene basins can be 3-D printed at a low cost, and shower buses can be chartered from third-party companies to provide urgently needed sanitation services to migrants.

As a public champion of gender equity, the United States should be leading the humanitarian effort to protect female Venezuelan migrants’ menstrual health. Yet the Venezuelan migrant crisis continues to be underfunded, and remaining funds are at risk of being divested to help the crisis in Ukraine. Humanitarian organizations, individual donors and government stakeholders––including USAID, International Rescue Committee USA, Care International, Save the Children and United Nations agencies––must not overlook the ongoing crisis at the border, even as other displacement crises arise.

Ending arbitrary asylum restrictions under Title 42 would be a positive step towards making the U.S. immigration system more accessible and equitable. However, lifting the law alone would not reverse the humanitarian crisis created by its enforcement since 2020. A coordinated, comprehensive menstrual hygiene management program is needed to address Venezuelan migrants’ basic health needs at the U.S.-Mexico border. After all, displacement crises are women’s crises, and women’s and migrants’ rights are human rights.

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About and

Zoha Siddiqui is co-director of The Exodus Project and a 1693 scholar at William & Mary as well as a recipient of the prestigious Mitchell Scholarship. Jahnavi Prabhala is the founder and former co-director of The Exodus Project at William & Mary.