International Rescue Committee (IRC)

“It happens every month”: Refugee women talk about managing their periods

In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Management Day (May 28), the International Rescue Committee talked with women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict areas where we work about how they managed their periods while living as refugees.

At any given moment, some 455 million women and girls will be experiencing their periods. For many of them, menstruation might cause no more than a minor inconvenience – but for women living as refugees it can pose real challenges. 

Imagine, for example, that war or a natural disaster has forced you from your home. You’re living in a crowded, makeshift refugee camp with no privacy, no bathroom, and no way to buy the sanitary pads or other supplies you need. You might only have one change of clothes.

“At the camp in Uganda, they gave me a rag so I could wash it and use it for one whole year.”

On top of this, taboos your society holds about menstruation might prompt you to try to hide the fact that you are having your period — lest you risk embarrassment, ridicule or even violence.  

“I was considered to be unclean”

Daily life and basic chores become more complicated.

“I wasn’t allowed to open the gate for our cows, because the cows could get sick.”

You are cut off from contact with other people. 

“I was not allowed to hold small children, because I was told newborns would get a rash.”

You are excluded from religious observances.

“I couldn’t go to the mosque or even pray at home.”

If you are a student, you might stay away from class or drop out of school altogether.

“A lot of our young girls go through this shame. I hope my daughter will be stronger than me so that she can go to school and become more successful.”

The International Rescue Committee makes sure that displaced women and girls in 15 countries where we work receive feminine hygiene supplies and information on how to use them, along with a change of clothing and other assistance.

We want even more women living in crisis zones to have the support they need to manage their periods in difficult circumstances, so we are working with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health on research and guidelines that will be shared with other humanitarian aid agencies. The most important element of this research? Making sure that women’s voices are heard and that women play an important part in designing new programs to help make “that time of the month” much easier.

“We need to all share information so we can teach others about menstruation. Friends, neighbors, daughters.”

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