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War and Menstruation

Often, the deepest casualties of war are the ones that don’t find words. Silenced, we believe they don’t exist, as they surreptitiously mock human rights, etching stains forever.

Menstruation.

Imagine your fifteen year old self (yes, men too). Idealism, passion and dreams of the future. You were probably studying in a school, with fans at least and single gender bathrooms, with latches and running water. You probably had a group of friends and evenings suffuse with hygienic food and warm sleep. You probably also took shots of all the essential vaccinations and had a medical store around the corner of your home.

What would your fifteen-year-old self, do, stuck in a refugee camp with the chill of the night befalling you as you try to breathe in a cramped tent? What would your fifteen years old self, do, if you had no school to teach you what menstruation is, no family to explain why you were bleeding and no running water? What would your fifteen years old self, do, when the people around ostracised you because you were bleeding (it’s not even under one’s control, damn it!) and stared at you as you silently walked around in stained, smelly clothes with painful infections flourishing in your vaginal areas?

According to a study conducted by Global One in displacement camps in Syria and Lebanon, 60% of the female refugees did not have access to underwear and a greater proportion had no access to sanitary napkins.

However, what augments this problem for female refugees is lack of access to clean toilets and of privacy. Refugee girls in Lebanon described the toilets as cramped and dirty and said that they preferred to change their menstrual material in their shelters, though shelters provided no privacy.

“The walls that make the tents and separate them are normally just blankets, plastic sheeting and transparent”, said one adolescent girl from Lebanon. “Someone from outside can see you in there.”

Often, puberty is a confusing phase of life. As a child, I remember how I always had my mother to look up to for explanations about the physical and emotional turmoil that I was experiencing when I reached puberty

A thirteen-year-old child, who just lost her family in an air-strike, stuck in an underground loft with a group of strangers. Who will she look up to when she gets her first period?

A fifteen-year-old is on a fierce journey through the sea in the hope to salvage her life. She gets her first period. Without food and water, in a ship crammed with people on a rocky sea, how will she deal with it?

When Sarah started menstruating in Egypt during the months-long journey that would take her from Eritrea to Britain, she had to use “toilet paper, tissue, anything” to soak up the blood. She was preparing to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy and did not have access to sanitary products. “You’re travelling with a small bag, an empty bag because when you go to the boat, they ask you to make it lighter.”

Her periods make her vulnerable. They become her vulnerability. Where do these vulnerabilities find respite?

In the numerous superstitions and customs associated with menstruation.

Out of school and barely surviving, young girls and women have no access to information about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. The consequences of which are low self-esteem, shame and an abode for numerous severe health conditions.

“You must dry your underwear and pads in secret. People may steal it for witchcraft. This can cause you infertility”  

                                – A refugee woman

“Sometimes I go and tell the teacher because many times when we alert them they hide, or sit in one place for hours,” he says, adding that the rest of the pupils distance themselves from girls who are menstruating.

                                – 14-year old Robert Anyanjo in a refugee school.

The taboo and the superstitions associated with this monthly phenomenon puts girls and women in physical danger. The shame associated with periods implies that a woman has to travel to secluded areas of the camp in the dark to dispose off or to change her sanitary napkin, due to lack of disposal facilities and toilets. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to physical assault and again, they have nobody to look up to for justice due to the silence and shame associated with a woman’s virginity and honour.

Don’t forget, they have to deal with this every month.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Several organizations, such as the United Nations, are trying to deliver sanitation kits to provide women access to sanitary napkins. However, these are usually not enough and often women are ashamed to collect sanitary napkins from the organizations distributing them due to the fear of being mocked on and laughed at. Further, the problem runs deeper than merely the lack of access to sanitary napkins. The lack of water and safe toilets, make it difficult for refugee women to use sanitary napkins even if they are available. The taboo and shame associated with this natural process, make it difficult for them to talk about the stress, pain and health issues that they are facing. The lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene and about the entire process of periods in general, make this natural phenomenon a horrifying experience of millions of refugee women every month.

Yet it leaves no stains in the entire debate about the refugee crisis.

It is important to realise the magnitude of this problem. Lack of education about menstruation and hygiene implies that several generations of women will continue to feel ashamed about their body and their period, several generations of women will be taught to remain silent about their needs and difficulties, several generations of women will be taught to feel disempowered and weak. Often, the issue of menstruation is ignored when we talk about refugees because it’s not about life or death. However, if we look at their survival as being different from their empowerment, will this crisis ever see an end?

Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.

One Future Collective