Upholding women and girls’ dignity: managing menstrual hygiene in emergency situations

By Betty Bayisabe, Burundi Red Cross Society

In and of themselves, sanitary pads are not life-saving items, but they do play a crucial role in preserving a woman’s health and dignity, and keeping her from harm, especially for those living in post-conflict and disaster settings.

Despite increasing attention to the issue, menstrual hygiene management is still a very sensitive – often taboo – subject which is not openly discussed, acknowledged or addressed by humanitarian organizations. The risks of ignoring this sensitive topic, particularly in emergencies, are significant.

Seventeen year old Claudine is a mother of a three-year-old boy. She is also a refugee from Democratic Republic of the Congo who now lives in the Bwagiriza camp in Ruyigi province in Burundi. “I have to tear off pieces from my little brother’s old clothes and fold it into a pad,” she says. “But this is not clean and I sometimes get infections and sores.” Occasionally, she manages to buy pads from the market using money from selling food. Without pads, she has to stay away from school for four or five days.

Adolescent girls are likely to miss school and fall behind in their education due to a lack of segregated, private and appropriate sanitation facilities. And women are more likely to stay home, waiting until nightfall to visit latrines, leading to an increased risk of violence.

In late 2012, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) began a pilot project to improve understanding of menstrual hygiene management needs in emergencies, in part through the distribution of menstrual hygiene kits.

IFRC workers recently joined the Burundi Red Cross in handing out 2,000 kits to girls and women in the Bwagiriza refugee camp. Traditionally, hygiene kits have been designed for household level distribution with no adjustment for the number of menstruating females in each household. Personal dignity kits include only disposable sanitary pads, which may not be appropriate in different cultures or contexts, and they do not address concerns such as safe disposal or the hygienic care of reusable pads.

The menstrual hygiene kit is designed to enable women to safely and hygienically manage their monthly period with dignity. At the Bwagiriza camp, the kits were well received. “I have been forced to stay at home during my period,” says Neema, a 48-year-old refugee. “I had no way to go out; not if everyone would know. I had no privacy. This kit will definitely help me.”

In July, Red Cross workers will return to the camp to monitor the use of the kits and determine their appropriateness and value. It is hoped that, in the future, these items will become as valuable and accepted relief items as jerry cans, blankets and mosquito nets.