Navigating Menstruation as a Displaced Person during the Genocidal War on Tigray

Navigating Menstruation as a Displaced Person during the Genocidal War on Tigray

Although women and girls make up about 50% of the world’s refugee population, they face disproportionate levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), discrimination, oppression, and trauma in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps. These threats exist due to customs favorable to the patriarchal structure in the camps. Unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, infections, and sexual exploitation are among the many burdens carried by Tigrayan women and girl refugees in Sudan, who have fled a genocide that has been ongoing since November 2020.

This vulnerable population faced extreme trauma escaping the genocide, only to be met with harsh conditions in underserved refugee camps. Lack of food and medicine and a need for cash have led to sexually exploitative relationships in exchange for basic necessities — a new and now common practice since the start of the genocidal war. “It was mentioned very clearly [by women engaging in survival sex] that this is the only way for them to get food and their needs,” said Abeer Abdulsalam, head of the gender-based violence unit at the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sudan.

One often overlooked burden women and girls at displacement camps carry is menstruation. Many women and girls fleeing the Tigray genocide are of menstruating age, which can have heavy financial, social, and health costs.

“In a normal setting, women and girls suffer from inequality, violence, and face many other challenges. Just think of women crossing the border pregnant or a girl having her period with only the clothes they are wearing … in a camp with minimum privacy, dignity, and security.” — Massimo Diana, UNFPA representative in Sudan.

“The first day I arrived in this camp, I began menstruating,” one 26-year-old Tigrayan refugee told UNFPA. “One day, I stayed wearing stained, bloody clothes. Then I sold my only valuable – my Android phone – to buy underwear, cotton and soap to deal with menstruation.”

Refugees and IDPs living in camps have limited access to clean water and hygiene products, sometimes leading menstruating women and girls to use unhygienic alternatives like sharing products or reusing disposable products. These practices can increase the likelihood of infections and the spread of disease within the camps. A Global One study found that the majority of girls and women in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon do not have access to clean underwear, and often resort to using old rags and pieces of moss mattresses while on their periods. A 2019 survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that, on average, only 55% of women’s menstrual needs were met with adequate hygiene products and only 37% for underwear.

“I have no income, nothing. Most of the days, I struggle with meeting the most basic needs of my children, like daily food. When you don’t have the means to change clothes or you don’t have money to even buy soap, something as natural as one’s menstrual period becomes a real challenge,” says a young mother of two children who stays at one of the IDP camps in Mekelle, Tigray.

Additionally, due to the pandemic, more than 70% of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) professionals have noted that the distribution of supplies to many refugee and IDP camps has been blocked and impeded. Along with greater risks of infections, the lack of menstrual hygiene management materials and support could lead to discomfort and negative coping habits that potentially impact the well-being of refugees. Some women and girls go to extreme measures to hide their periods, sometimes by burying their pads and tampons multiple feet underground in a secluded location, leaving them vulnerable to attacks, kidnappings, and sexual violence. Some pads are disposed of in the toilet, causing desludging issues in camps where the restroom facilities are already substandard. 

Furthermore, without sanitary products, women and girls are unable to freely move or stand in line for basic necessities such as food and water. Waits for toilets, especially in overcrowded camps, are often lengthy, adding stress during menstruation while trying to prevent a leak or accident in line. Toilets are usually not separated by gender at these camps, leaving women and girls vulnerable to SGBV and invasions of privacy.

One 14-year-old girl named Worke, displaced due to the Tigray genocide, told Plan International that she and her friends have had humiliating experiences related to their periods at the camp. “If a menstruating girl sits on a bench and leaves a blood mark on it, no one will sit on it again.” 

Stigmas and embarrassment surrounding menstruation only increase its already-heavy burden on displaced women and girls. These stigmas can cause further harm, preventing women and girls from seeking help or assistance from aid agencies.

Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says, “In the context where conditions are already so challenging, and the conditions are so poor, it is just magnified when a woman or girl is faced with having her period.”

Unfortunately, because the majority of decision-makers are men, menstruation in camps for displaced people is not prioritized. However, it is a dire issue that can pose a detrimental health and socio-psychological burden to women and girls around the world. Those working with displaced populations should focus on increasing resources and breaking stigmas surrounding menstruation.
Some Tigrayan refugees were able to receive dignity kits, which include new sanitary products: “I am grateful. I am learning how to protect myself and my children while being displaced. I am learning that I have rights and I have a voice. Thanks to the dignity kits of UNFPA, women and girls will not have to hide in their rooms every time they have their periods. We can live freely and healthily.”

Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2022