Refugee Women: Feminine Hygiene Products Illuminate Culture Differences

Menstruation is a profound experience for the female body. It is a shedding and releasing of the potential for life. It is a ritual of detaching from the unborn, and beckoning in the new. The experience of having a period is different for every women. Some get to rest in bed, some pop some pills to ease the cramps, and some hide in shame from their family and friends until the crimson flow has passed.

Periods can be painful, emotional, and they are always messy.

In many cultures, menstruation is seen as disgraceful and shameful. And now, there is a profound number of women, and girls, who are experiencing their periods trapped in refugee camps in Greece.

When I first began reading article after article about the mass exodus of refugees fleeing war torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I couldn't help but wonder....what are all these women and girls doing about their periods? I was not (and am still not) able to reconcile how these women and girls are dealing with their monthly cycles under such incredibly distressing conditions.

Now, nearly a year since the arrival of millions of refugees in Greece, I've decided to take action and support these women and girls as best as I can.

I recently launched a campaign to raise funds to supply refugee women and girls with feminine hygiene products. (You can view the campaign and donate here). When launching this campaign, and making the decision to go to Greece myself, I expected all the women (and men) in my life to be eager to donate, without asking questions or doubting my decision.

However, since announcing my fundraiser quite a few women have approached me and asked why I am not donating reusable products. A dear friend texted me: "Hey! I'm happy to donate some menstruation cups, or reusable rags. I thought I'd ask about the other options being that they (reusable products) are better long-term options."

It is a fair question based on an awareness of the environmental impacts of one-time use products, but when considering the refugees' circumstances in which 'long-term' isn't a part of their reality, it is inherently flawed, and social and economic privilege.

Last month, this article about a refugee woman having to wash her newborn in a puddle just outside her tent is proof that not only do these women lack adequate resources, they lack privacy and sustainable solutions. Given the lack of access to clean water, it is also a health risk for the women to use products that require washing. It is tragic that the refugees must rely on short-term solutions, but this is what survival looks like.

I find many of my progressive and well-meaning friends in Western cultures are often blinded by their admirable idealism. This is not a judgement of their hopes and desires for all people (especially women) to have access to comfort and ease. However, this lack of awareness feeds into a global system of expecting other cultures to meet us where we are. In the ease, in the comfort, in the abundance of options.

I'm sitting with the weight of knowing my Western life has opened me to abundance and potential, to knowing that that I am able to choose. When I get my monthly cycle, I am blessed I can reuse a product, soak my body in a bath to relax, and talk openly about my period with my friends and lover. Even this--being able to launch a campaign to raise money for menstrual pads, blast on online, and write about it--is a privilege that I do not take lightly.