Why menstruation matters for refugee women | ActionAid UK

Imelda Phadtare

Head of Humanitarian Response Program, ActionAid Greece

Providing sanitary kits to women, which include sanitary towels, underwear, wet wipes, a soap bar, a toothbrush and toothpaste, has been a key part of ActionAid Greece's response to the refugee crisis since November 2015. We have distributed 41,000 sanitary kits so far: initially through women friendly spaces in camps on the island of Lesvos, and now in camps in Athens. Mel Phadtare, the Head of Humanitarian Response Program for ActionAid Greece, explains why these kits are so essential, based on her team on the ground's observations. 

ActionAid Greece worker Janette distributes dignity kits at a women's friendly space in Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos.
ActionAid Greece worker Anna distributes dignity kits at a women's friendly space on Lesvos.

Women couldn’t afford sanitary towels on their periods

“In the beginning when we set up our women friendly spaces, refugees were living in tents and were sharing the toilet space. This led to many issues since the toilets were unclean, and women were facing difficulties in going to the toilets at night time due to the fact that toilets were far away from their tents and they were feeling insecure

Many women described the difficulties they faced in relation to hygiene matters in the camps, especially around menstruation. Many among them did not have the financial ability to buy sanitary towels, and while medical agencies were providing them with a few items, they were not enough for their whole menstrual cycle. 

The contents of a 'dignity kit' that ActionAid distributed to refugee women in Greece. It included sanitary towels, wipes, soap, underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Women friendly spaces help women express their needs

When we first set up the women friendly spaces menstruation was a taboo and women were shy even when ActionAid team members were demonstrating what was in the kits (especially the sanitary towels). These spaces proved to be very important since they allowed women to feel secure and able to express their individual needs openly.

Gradually they felt able to ask for sanitary towels, and it also allowed them to open up discussions around critical clothing and contraceptive needs and therefore ask for headscarves and condoms.


Siba 19, from Daraa, Syria at ActionAid women's space, Kara Tepe

Having a female-focused NGO is critical

The whole process was part of protecting and empowering women. Through discussions in focus groups the team identified the specific needs of women and carried them forward to the camp management team. Needs that women have can be overlooked as shelter and registration and food are often prioritised, so having a female-focused NGO on the ground at the beginning of any emergency response is critical.

Women expressed their gratitude for this support. One woman said when she noticed the underwear inside the kit: “I’m grateful to you, as you take care of us like a mother would take care of her child”.”

Help women and girls access clean, safe sanitary towels in a humanitarian disaster

Photo credits: Anna Pantelia/ActionAid