Written by Ann Witteveen, Humanitarian Manager, Oxfam Canada.
I grew up in the 70’s when commercials for ‘feminine hygiene products’ were a rarity and even when shown were often so cryptic it was hard to make the link – soft music and sepia toned images meant to whisper quietly into the ears of female consumers without offending the sensibilities of their male counterparts. In those days every teenaged girl knew that that the quickest way to get her dad, the math teacher or her coach off her back was to say anything at all about her period. Times have changed and there is now no missing the point behind a TV ad or (more likely) you-tube video featuring a gymnast in white shorts flogging tampons for a multi-national company.
In this case the forthright attitude of a group of women refugees from South Sudan, living in Rhino Refugee Settlement near Arua, Uganda was totally in tune with their sisters in the developed world. They were performing a short skit to demonstrate the importance of having a way to manage their monthly periods by making reusable pads. Their performance came complete with acrobatic moves and a storyline that showed how important such a practical article of everyday life is for women and adolescent girls here, just as it is everywhere. And that managing menstruation in a refugee camp may not be listed on a UN assessment report as a humanitarian need but, in many ways, it is just that.
In fact, a new how-to manual for Aid Workers lays out the issues and practical steps that all must take to ensure women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, including menstrual health that is a precursor to preventing and mitigating gender based violence. Included in these guidelines (in the Water and Sanitation Section) is a specific requirement to ensure dignified access to hygiene-related materials. Similar to our South Sudan refugees, the authors don’t want any confusion and so the instruction to ‘distribute suitable material for the absorption and disposal of menstrual blood for women and girls of reproductive age” leaves nothing to the imagination. Julie Lafrenière, who works for Oxfam Canada and was one of the authors of the book is unapologetic for the blunt-speak – "we didn’t want any confusion" she notes, "Women need these items and not just once a year! Their sustained availability should be secure and provisions should include bins for disposal."
The reusable pads described above meet the requirements of the guidelines but they are not an Oxfam invention. They are a copy of a product made by Afripads – a social business in Uganda that specializes in the local manufacture of similar cost-effective, reusable items.
These are still too expensive for refugees so a homemade version was developed. The design is simple, a rectangular piece of cloth sewed into a ‘u’ with a piece of towel inserted into the open end. Tabs on each side and a button underneath secure the pad to panties. The whole thing can be easily washed and dried. Oxfam with its local partners, Community Empowerment for Rural Development (CEFORD) and Agency for Corporation and Research in Development (ACORD) provided the materials and design and the women make them, selling extras at the local market.
I was in Uganda to visit an Oxfam project that has funding from Global Affairs Canada. Oxfam is providing water and sanitation in the camp but also assisting women to form groups to discuss issues and support each other. They call themselves “Roko Ta Nusuwan” roughly translated as ‘Voice of Women’ in Arabic. They meet every two weeks or so, under the leadership of a trained facilitator (also a resident of the camp).
The topics discussed are up to them and have included domestic violence, problems accessing food aid, their own trauma due to the conflict in South Sudan, and so on. For Oxfam and our local partners it is a window from which to judge how we’re doing, it gives us a chance to check in and make sure the services we offer are meeting every refugee’s needs, not just those who wield the most power.
Refugee stories are finally grabbing some headlines around the world – with pictures of Syrian families especially and their often tragic journeys to Europe filling our TV screens. The reality is that most refugees will never make it to a new country and many will spend years living in a camp like this one, along a border in some far flung country that most Canadians couldn’t place on a map. The scale of these crises (UNHCR estimates that 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago) can overwhelm but what we must never lose sight of is the human faces and lives they represent. And when we get the chance let’s also celebrate the resilience, dignity and optimism these and other women manage to maintain, in often appalling circumstances, on a day by day, problem by problem basis.
June 20th marked World Refugee Day. Oxfam Canada and our Humanitarian Coalition partners were in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square calling attention to the plight of refugees and displaced people around the world.