“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”
Across many cultures around the world, women and girls find themselves victims of period stigma. The consequences vary from girls repeatedly missing school to women dying from being banished to outlawed “menstruation huts” (1). Among the most vulnerable are women who not only have to deal with cultural taboos and a lack of resources, but are also refugees, fleeing their homes due to fear of persecution, war, or violence.
By the end of 2018, of the 25 million refugees worldwide, roughly half were women and girls (2). In such crises, menstrual hygiene management becomes almost unimaginable. The path of the refugee is rife with perils, and there are specific challenges for young women. Particularly when traveling alone, women face increased risk of sexual harassment, violence, and exploitation. In research conducted by Amnesty International, women reported smugglers and others working in the smuggling network offered discounted trips or shorter waits to get across the Mediterranean in exchange for sex (3). A 23-year-old Syrian woman interviewed by Amnesty International said, “at the hotel in Turkey, one of the men working with the smuggler, a Syrian man, said if I sleep with him I will not pay or pay less… the same happened in Jordan to all of us.”
I recently conducted an interview with Marjan, a refugee who fled her Taliban-ravaged province of Afghanistan with her family when she was sixteen years old to come to Germany. She explained how her mother had sewn dollar bills in cloth bags to their clothing out of fear of facing thieves. The women were the ones carrying most of the cash, since it could be more easily concealed under all the layers of loose clothing. Fearful of attracting male attention, she dressed in conservative long dresses and a headscarf trying to hide her young-looking face while migrating. There is a particularly high risk of sexual violence and harassment for women and girls who are menstruating. Women have reported harassment by other refugees often takes place in bathrooms and shower facilities which in many cases were shared with men. Amnesty International’s findings include women taking “extreme measures such as not eating or drinking to avoid having to go to the toilet where they felt unsafe.”
Marjan’s trek from Iran to Turkey was complicated by having her period; she recalls this as the worst stretch of the five-month journey to Germany. The biggest issue she encountered was lack of privacy and clean water. Before embarking on a particularly arduous two-day trek across the Iran-Turkey border by foot, Marjan ingeniously packed diapers, instead of pads, predicting challenges along the way. This proved wise as the crossing presented numerous obstacles. In order to avoid being spotted by border patrol, the group was required to maintain a hunched down position as they walked, causing pain and discomfort most of the way. Walking parallel to long stretches of highway, the group would get warning via radio of when to dive into the tall grass to avoid being seen by passing cars. Time to rest was rare and limited, and finding a private place far enough away from men was especially difficult for Marjan.
She describes menstruation as an extremely sensitive subject in her culture. She would never discuss it with any male family member; her father and brother were under the impression the diapers were to be used as last resort for urinating. In Western cultures, menstruation is portrayed as a hygienic issue that needs to be managed and concealed, loaded with shame and embarrassment. In non-Western cultures, menstruating bodies are strongly associated with dirt, impurity, and a source of pollution, adding to the stigma. From an early age, girls of all cultures are taught the “etiquette of concealment” to prevent public knowledge of menstruation. In a Western context, this means the “tampon up the sleeve” trick for covert transportation to the bathroom; in non-Western context, it means missing days of school. This stigma also influences the way mothers discuss menstruation with their daughters, often denying them important knowledge about their bodies (4).
Research findings focusing on the experiences of menstruation among migrant and refugee women from Asia, Africa, and South America revealed women were largely dissatisfied with first-period education and communication from their mothers and schools. A Sudanese woman recalls, “My mom always told me… when you get the period, don’t come closer to the men, don’t sit with the men… if you sit with the men or talk closer to the men, you’re going to fall pregnant.” A Somali woman shared the warning messages she received, “Men can rape you and you can get pregnant and in my religion a woman is not supposed to get pregnant before she is married.” These messages were a common theme, leaving girls confused because the association between menstruation, sex, and pregnancy were rarely fully explained.
Marjan also experienced sexual harassment, recounting the second night crossing into Turkey, when 25 migrants walked together in total darkness following the smugglers. Marjan’s family was at the back, since her elderly parents had fallen behind. One of the smugglers told her brother go in front and lead. When the smuggler felt there was enough distance between them and her family, he groped her. She shoved his hand away and called for her brother to walk next to her again, but did not tell him what happened. Even if women are travelling with family, many do not tell their family members about any harassment experienced out of fear it would derail their border crossing. Marjan felt vulnerable and powerless.
After a cold night of trying to sleep outside, the last part of the journey to Turkey involved an unexpected river crossing. All of the family’s belongings and clothes were completely soaked as the frigid water rose to their chests. She was left without any diapers when she needed it most. It took the family four days and $8,000 to cross into Turkey. It would take an additional three months and $4,000 to reach Europe during the 2015 migration crisis. Seeing the news of numerous deaths resulting from the capsizing of crowded black plastic boats just before embarking on a similar voyage, Marjan’s mother was terrified. For weeks, her father would spend every waking hour searching for a different way to reach Greece. Deprived of other options, her mother insisted they return to Afghanistan, to which Marjan replied, “we cannot go back, it is too dangerous; we cannot stay here in Turkey, there is only one way out and we have to do it.”
The struggles in the lives of refugees can be daunting, and the experience harrowing, but for young women like Marjan, managing not only menstruation, but also gender expectations and abuse, can be a defining dimension of the grueling search for a new home.
(1) BBC News: Nepal woman and children die in banned ‘menstruation hut’ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46823289
(4) Hawkey, A., Ussher, J., Perz, J., Metusela, C. Experiences and Construction of Menarche and Menstruation Among Migrant and Refugee Women (2016)