Displaced girls seek solutions over menstruation

In cramped camps, women and girls work to overcome a quiet problem, month after month.

Macarena Aguilar
Displaced girls seek solutions over menstruation
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
27 May 2017

Ever wondered what it might be like for women and girls handling their period in a cramped camp for internally displaced people (IDPs)?
“It’s difficult,” said Zaw Mar Luu, 19, shyly. 

This issue is not often spoken about in IDP camps. 

“Usually I keep my used sanitary pads in a plastic bag until the garbage truck comes to collect from the main waste bin. But it only comes once a week.” 

Zaw Mar Luu got her first period in 2012, shortly after the decades-long conflict in Kachin forced her family to flee their village and seek refuge at the Tha Ye Taw camp, which now houses more than 500 people. 

Like Zaw Mar Luu, women and adolescent girls living in camps for displaced people across Myanmar struggle every month to get through their periods safely and with dignity. 

Getting into debt
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
Sanitary pads and underwear are distributed by UNICEF and partners to women and girls who attended the Menstrual Hygiene Management awareness session at the Tar Ga Ya IDP Camp.

Getting into debt 

Without a supply to the camp of disposable sanitary pads, the women and girls have to find ways to buy pads in nearby shops. When they don’t have money, they borrow from their neighbors or get in debt with local store owners. This impacts on their income and education opportunities.  

In addition, the women and girls face a lack of privacy to change in small makeshift shelters that often house up to six people and have no partitions. They face risks each time they seek out hideaways to change their sanitary pads, particularly at night. 

Private spaces to wash and dry reusable pads and cloths napkins are scarce, forcing women and girls to use communal bathing and washing areas. During the heavy rainy seasons, it is difficult for reusable pads and cloths to dry properly, which can lead to infection. 

menstrual hygiene
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
Sandar Tun (17) washes her hands in a handwashing station at the Tar Ga Ya (Thayattaw) IDP Camp

Monthly struggles

In recent years, Myanmar’s protracted crisis has seen funding for humanitarian assistance steadily decrease, and humanitarian access to displaced communities has become harder in both government and non-government controlled areas. In Kachin State alone, over 91,000 people have been displaced by the violence. Countrywide, the number reaches over 245,000.

Even though around one-third of Myanmar’s overall displaced population are women and adolescent girls of menstruating age, there are big funding gaps for menstrual hygiene management support, said Sunny Guidotti, who coordinates the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) humanitarian response in Myanmar.

The funding gaps are is especially acute in Kachin State, where organizations last year reported reaching only one third of the women and girls likely to use sanitary pads. 

“A few years ago there were more regular distributions of hygiene kits, which include menstrual hygiene items. While these are still happening regularly in other parts of the country, in Kachin we have seen a decrease, particularly in the non-government controlled areas,” said Guidotti.

In Tha Ye Taw camp, for example, up until 2016, aid packages included disposable sanitary pads. But not anymore, said Sandar Tun, 17, who has been living in the camp since fleeing her home in 2012. 

As the eldest in her family, the young woman carries the burden of earning an income to support her younger siblings. She struggles to make ends meet, working at sharpening raw amber to supply local jewellery producers.

“I left school in the 5th grade and I want my younger siblings to have better chances, so I do everything that I can to take care of their school fees,” she said.

Sandar struggles most months to afford disposable sanitary pads, and without them she finds it difficult to attend work during her period.

UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
Sanitary pads and underwear are distributed by UNICEF and partners to women and girls who attended the Menstrual Hygiene Management awareness session at the Tar Ga Ya IDP Camp.

Working for solutions

The WASH Cluster led by UNICEF is advocating for more investment to support menstrual hygiene management in camps. 

Organizations are defying the limited resources by trying out different strategies to reach as many women and girls as possible. 

“With last year’s gaps, we are starting to target those most in need,  and we’re looking at more cost-effective interventions to make sure that women and girls have regular access to minimum items such as sanitary pads, underwear and soap, but more funds are needed for Kachin,” Guidotti said. 

In addition to these essential items, building bathing houses and latrines that guarantee enough privacy is key. Installing lighting in latrines and across the camp, and adapting the design of shelters and schools so women and girls have private spaces are important measures too. 

Guidotti said that the WASH cluster joined forces with colleagues from Protection and Education, Health and Shelter for a more holistic menstrual hygiene management response. She is also collaborating with the Cash Working Group Lead.

Information sharing
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
Adolescent girls at the Tar Ga Ya IDP camp, with UNICEF WASH cluster coordinators, Sunny Guidotti and Toe Toe Aung, discuss their preferences and the difficulties to manage their menstrual cycle with safety and dignity and how to improve the sanitation infrastructure in the camp.

Information sharing

Today is a lucky day for Sandar Tun and and Zaw Mar Luu. In one go, they received disposable sanitary pads and underwear, and learned more about menstrual hygiene. 

“My mom and aunts told me a little bit, but I had never heard most of the information that was shared with us here,” said Zaw Mar Luu.

To support women and girls, organizations helping with WASH offer awareness sessions once or twice a month in Kachin. In addition to discussing the practicalities of how to use and dispose of sanitary pads and the hygiene to maintain during the period, they outline the details of the menstrual cycle and how it may impact women’s bodies and feelings. 

The information sessions are often the only time that many women and girls openly talk about the issues they face. 

“Sometimes the pains are so strong during my period that I have difficulty working. But my father gets upset and doesn’t understand,” said Sandar Tun. 

“Now I realize I am not the only one.”

Ways forward
UNICEF Myanmar/2018/Nyan Zay Htet
Sandar Tun and Zaw Mar Luu have a chat and a laugh after the Menstrual Hygiene Management awareness session at the Tar Ga Ya IDP Camp.

Ways forward

The sessions are also an opportunity for the community to identify simple steps that they can take to improve the situation.

During the recent session at Tha Ye Taw camp, the community discussed the possibility of setting up a system where bins for sanitary pads would be put inside the latrines for more privacy when disposing of them. They discussed how they could organize the collection from the latrine bins to the main disposal bins where the truck picks up waste weekly. 

There is still some way to go before this is done—but the conversation has started.