Periods in humanitarian disasters

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

Photo: Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid

Putting menstrual health at the heart of emergency response

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in emergencies, disasters and conflict zones.

ActionAid ensures that women are at the heart of our emergency response work, because they are amongst the first reponders to a crisis, and bring vital skills, resources and experience.

Because our emergency work is led by women, they ensure that the needs of women refugees and other vulnerable groups are met. That is why ActionAid recognises that access to clean and safe menstrual products is not a ‘nice-to-have’. 

Roya's mum got her period as they travelled as refugees from Afghanistan to Greece.

Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

Period poverty and refugees

Roya, 21, arrived at our Women Friendly Space in Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos after a harrowing journey from Afghanistan. She had travelled with her family, including her two young sons Ali Reza and Sarwas, her sister and her mother. 

“It was definitely harder for the women on the journey," said Roya.

"My mother got her period on the journey and she had nothing with her. She had to rip a dirty piece from her dress and use that. She also found some leaves to use.

"In ActionAid’s Women Friendly Space they gave us sanitary towels and some other things." 

How ActionAid distributes menstrual products in an emergency

We have distributed menstrual products in crises and disasters as wide-ranging as the Nepal earthquakes of 2015, in Greece at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-2016, in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and in East Africa during the food crisis of 2017.

They are often distributed at our Women Friendly Spaces, which we set up in the aftermath of disasters to provide a safe space for women and girls who may be at risk of violence. 

Suljhana couldn't sleep when she got her period in the shared shelter after the Nepal earthquake.


Period poverty, stigma and taboos

Suljhana, 30, was one of hundreds of people forced to take refuge in a camp after the Nepal earthquakes in April 2015 devastated cities, towns and villages.

In some parts of Nepal, women and girls are supposed to sleep separately to their families when they have their period. Suljhana explained what it was like living in a tent with strangers when she got her period. 

"It is particularly awkward during menstruation periods to share tents with men. During the first two days of my period I bleed heavy and I have been so uncomfortable having to share the same roof with so many people that I could not fall asleep for those two days.

"Menstruation is a taboo in our culture; many of the women are reluctant to talk about it and young girls hesitate to share their trouble. Fortunately we had received the sanitary pads from ActionAid.”

Top image: Siba, 19, from Syria, receives a sanitary kit in the women's safe space in Kara Tepe. Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

Page updated 25 May 2021