Menstrual Health Management and Education for Refugees
Menstruation is a monthly reality for women and girls around the world and a normal reproductive process for women and girls of reproductive age. However, in many cultures and contexts, menstrual health is often the most difficult period of time for a woman, as she is met with negative stereotypes, cultural and community shaming, and barriers to accessing menstrual hygiene products and education that break down these taboos. Forcible displacement exacerbates these conditions for the millions of women and girls who have been displaced worldwide.
This is where The Unmentionables comes in. The Unmentionables is a female driven, international organization with a mission to restore dignity to displaced populations by providing underwear, hygiene products and sexual and reproductive health products and education to empower and protect refugees from infection, early or unwanted marriage and childbirth and sexual and gender-based violence. We provide and support the training of local community experts on Menstrual Health Management (MHM) and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) education to empower male and female refugees to make healthy and appropriate choices regarding their sexual and reproductive health, including their menstrual health.
Context and rationale
Kakuma Refugee Camp is situated in Kenya’s most northwestern and poorest district, Turkana. Since 1992, the camp has hosted up to 180,000 refugees from over 15 various nations, with the majority being Somali and South Sudanese. Recent conflicts in South Sudan have created an influx of South Sudanese refugees within Kakuma camp in Kenya. According to IsraAID, the cost of sanitary products is beyond the financial capabilities of most women and girls. While the UNHCR provide some free distributions of disposal sanitary products, funding shortages have meant only half of the annual needs of all women and girls in the camp are met. This results in women and girls resorting to unhygienic methods of managing their periods, or unsafe practises such as survival sex, to earn additional income for purchasing sanitary products. With 40,000 reproductive age females residing in Kakuma Camp, the need for menstrual health and hygiene support, management, and education are massive.
IsraAID Kenya also notes that many of the current adult population in Kakuma left home when they were children, interrupting their schooling. Most were unable to continue due to language gap barriers, long distances to schools and a lack of legal access to the Kenyan education system. As a result, a large majority of the refugees have had no exposure to sexual and reproductive health education and find it difficult to understand what is being taught. For example, one beneficiary claimed that they “learned about periods fromthe elders in our village, but they did not receive any training so much of the information was incorrect.” Schools in Kakuma Camp include reproductive health within their life skills curriculum but this is only accessible to refugees who are able to attend school, many women are too old and some girls do not attend.
There is a lack of funding in Kakuma Camp to address these menstrual health management needs. There are others who are engaged in MHM, however no single project provides the coverage needed to reach all women and girls of reproductive age. Some actors provide MHM distributions or education, but these rarely occur together, are often ad hoc in nature and do not account for the entire camp population.
Since its origins in November 2016, The Unmentionables has supplied 115,469 intimate health products to displaced populations in five countries and has reached 2,500 women and girls and 200 men and boys with its sexual and reproductive health education programs. The Unmentionables is a female led, remote-based team spanning virtually all continents and involving local partnerships, staff and volunteers in every operation. With its operations beginning in response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece, it has more recently expanded to East Africa, and has been operating in Uganda, Kenya and Somalia since mid 2017, including in Kakuma Camp, Kenya.
Building on the success and learning from an MHM pilot project in 2016-17, delivered by IsraAid, The Unmentionables has plans to commence distributions of an existing stock of 1,500 reusable menstrual kits to female residents in Kakuma Camp in February 2018. This will be combined with MHM education, conducted by trained, female, community educators to fill the obvious gap residents have to access this information. Training will be modeled after the successful education project for refugees in Greece, and will be adjusted to cultural norms accordingly.
The Unmentionables’ CEO and co-founder, Kaleigh Heard holds a Ph.D (ABD) in political science and two masters degrees. She conducts research on civilians in armed conflict concerning victims of sexual and gender-based violence, tertiary migrants, and the impacts on survival sex. In 2017, Kaleigh was one of the eight Johnson & Johnson One Young World Scholars and was selected for her contributions to global health. Kaleigh oversees the strategic, funding, communications, and monitoring aspects of the project.
COO and co-founder Megan Beck holds two degrees in international development and French, and has 14 years of experience working with vulnerable populations. In 2017, Megan was one of 10 Bustle Upstart Honorees, selected to represent women of social good and philanthropy across the world. Her role oversees fiscal leadership and accounting, non-profit partnerships, human resources, and logistics.
Rachel Starkey, partner in reusable MHM in Kenya, owns textile firms in Egypt and Kenya. Her connections have resulted in The Unmentionables’ participation within UN and African Union High-Level Working Groups on Menstrual Health, Girls Education, and WASH in East Africa.
Working as co-head of Mission in East Africa, Fiona Rushbrook brings considerable sectoral expertise. Fiona holds a master’s degree in disasters, adaptation and development, and has worked in some of the worst conflicts and humanitarian crises in recent history, including Yemen and Afghanistan.
Ben Woollan, co-head of Mission in East Africa, has a professional background is in IT and telecommunications project and operations management. He has a degree in surveying and mapping science and postgraduate certificate in information capability management.
Social taboos, language barriers, and gaps in services leave forcibly displaced people with virtually no access to consistent and culturally appropriate menstrual hygiene education, which is necessary to prevent infections, shame, dropout from school or livelihood opportunities and unsafe practises such as survival sex, all of which are far too common of an occurrence in Kakuma Camp.
Specifically, within the refugee camp populations, reproductive health and menstrual hygiene are private and taboo; parents and husbands may refuse or prevent a woman’s access to these necessary services and products. Issues related to both are typically under-reported out of fear and embarrassment. As a result, women lack the education, knowledge, and access to sufficient resources regarding their menstrual hygiene management, and face cultural barriers and stigmas when they attempt to do so. Refugee women then lack the agency and are not empowered to take control over their menstrual health.
This pilot project seeks to test a long-term solution for the MHM needs of the Kakuma community to create a collaborative and integrated MHM program that encompasses MHM information, use and care education. The Unmentionables willutilize already identified community educators by supporting them to provide 2-3 workshops on MHM for female members of their community during a one week period. They will work in pairs at the same location, each training up to 25 women and girls at one time on MHM and on the proper use and care of the relevant products.
After participating in a three-hour workshop, participants will be entitled to receive a Dignity Kit containing underwear, reusable sanitary pads and soap for washing. Education will be provided in a safe and comfortable setting and will target women and girls organized in existing community and youth groups established by other organizations operating in Kakuma.
- Project Goal: Over 400 female refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya are educated and empoweredto take control of their menstrual health.
- Project Outcome: Over 400female refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya have increasedawareness of culturally appropriate MHM education to enable them to make safe and healthy menstrual hygiene choices
- Project Outputs:
- Community Educators in Kakuma Camp, Kenya are trained on MHM issues to become champions of MHM within their communities.
- Female refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya are trained by Community Educators on MHMissues and have the required information to make safe and healthy choices regarding their menstrual hygiene.
The beneficiaries of this project will be female refugees of reproductive age (roughly ages 12-49) living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. They will be primarily above the age of puberty, but some menstruation related education may be provided to girls approaching pubescence. The project will target all nationalities and backgrounds within Kakuma Camp. Some community educators may be members of the host community that are well embedded within the Kakuma community, however, priority for this phase of the project will be for qualified female refugees residing in Kakuma Camp.
Initially the project will offer the MHM education workshops and distributions at community centres, youth centres and other existing groups organized by organizations operating in Kakuma Camp. This approach will help ensure a balance beneficiary selection across all nationalities and sub-groups residing in all four districts of Kakuma Camp.
There is also an option to advertise events more openly through the community educators or through other marketing outlets such as social media. However, events must be limited to maximum 25 participants to ensure a safe, comfortable educational environment. The project will not target women and girls in schools at this stage, given that most schools already receive MHM training. It will also not target men and boys during this phase of the project, however there are plans to also include men and boys in phase 2 of the project, later in the year.
Female refugees face multiple barriers to accessing MHM information, which denies them their reproductive rights. Cultural taboos and a lack of coordinated and fully funded humanitarian aid only exacerbate these issues in displacement situations. Training local community educators to be experts and educators themselves on these topics gives female refugees an accessible resource for information and guidance. As such, they have increased access to this education and are more empowered to take control of their menstrual hygiene.