Why menstruation matters for refugee women | ActionAid UK

Imelda Phadtare

Head of Humanitarian Response Program, ActionAid Greece

Mel Phadtare, Head of Humanitarian Response for ActionAid Greece, explains why menstrual hygiene kits are so essential for refugee women and girls in her country - and why ActionAid’s response is working. 

ActionAid Greece worker Janette distributes sanitary kits to refugee women
ActionAid Greece worker Janette distributes sanitary kits to refugee women

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’ve distributed over 41,000 sanitary kits: initially through women friendly spaces in camps on the island of Lesvos, and now in camps in Athens. 

I’ve seen first-hand the difference these kits can make for refugee women and girls and why, for refugees, menstruation matters so much. 

Refugee women couldn’t afford any sanitary protection

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.

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”.

How you can help

We know that in humanitarian crises, women and girls are often the hardest-hit.

Being able to manage their periods hygienically, and with dignity, makes a huge difference to their lives

Your donation of just £3 a month could help us distribute sanitary kits for refugee women and girls, who have had to leave home with nothing. Can you help?

Donate now

Photo credits: Anna Pantelia/ActionAid