What happens when you get your period during a war?

As Ukrainian women are forced to flee their war-torn nation, many have to decide between sanitary products and food. Laura Hampson discovers why a lack of period care can be life-threatening

Friday 11 March 2022 16:17 GMT
A woman with two children after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia on 25 February, 2022
A woman with two children after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia on 25 February, 2022 (Getty)

In the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, over two million Ukrainian refugees have left the Eastern European nation. Those that have stayed have been living in shelters across the country in order to stay safe. But for the women, of whom there are two million more than there are men in Ukraine, they have another pressing thing to worry about: their periods.

Most women, from their early teens to around their mid-fifties, menstruate once per month. This can be anywhere from three to seven days per month, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. A woman’s period can also come with period pains or cramps, which can make it difficult to perform regular tasks without the aid of pain medication.

While their period arriving may be the least of their worries for women currently in a war zone, or for those who have fled as refugees, when the time of the month comes, access to period products is crucial — but it might not be possible.

“People who are forced to leave their homes in a war zone are unlikely to be able to carry everything they need, or to be able to plan ahead – it’s a crisis,” Rachel Grocott, communications and public fundraising director of Bloody Good Period tells The Independent. “If period products are available, they are often sold at such high prices that women are forced to choose between [the products] and other essentials, including food.”

UN Women UK executive director Claire Barnett says that families have told the organisation that they are “leaving with only a few items they can carry” and that “women will not be able to bring the supply of period products with them that they need”. She adds: “Some will have travelled for days without access to proper facilities. Shops are closed and many women fleeing will not have their own source of income to buy non-food items.”

Grocott adds that access to period products isn’t about “dignity”, but rather necessity. She says: “We don’t say that access to food, water or medicine is about dignity, and periods should be as much a part of humanitarian relief as any of those things.”

Not having access to sanitary products can be life-threatening, too. Barnett explains that a lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities can be “deadlier than deaths directly as a result of war”. She adds: “Reusing items like pieces of rubbish and rags as sanitary towels, which women often resort to in conflict situations, can cause serious infection as well as discomfort.”

A 2017 study from Global One of refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon found that 60 per cent of female refugees did not have access to underwear and more had no access to sanitary products when they had their period. The study found that half of the women surveyed suffered from untreated urinary tract infections (UTIs) as a result.

War can result in heavier, more painful periods which require more access to menstrual products

Terri Harris, Bloody Good Period

Bloody Good Period’s education programme manager Terri Harris, who has worked in a refugee camp in Lebanon, says lack of menstrual products among refugee women is “one of their greatest concerns”. “We had reported cases of women using old rags, pieces of moss, pieces of mattresses. The use of such items coupled with poor water and sanitation facilities led to infections and other health problems,” she explains.

“We also have to take into consideration that war is obviously an acute stressful condition, which will inevitably result in menstrual abnormalities. This might result in heavier periods, more painful periods, irregular periods - all issues which require more access to menstrual products.”

A separate study from UN Women and its partner in Cameroon found that 99 per cent of women don’t feel safe in refugee camp toilets. Barnett adds that women and girls who don’t have safe places to change period products or go to the toilet are at “higher risk of sexual violence”.

“Aside from the danger of violence caused where women will need to go to the toilet and change pads outside proper facilities, we are very concerned about the escalation we often see in conflict situations of sexual violence being used as a weapon,” Barnett says. “We are also hearing reports from the borders of traffickers and exploitation of women and children leaving Ukraine.”

Passengers depart the railway station after disembarking trains from the east on March 11, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine (Getty Images)

Barnett adds that, during conflict, women’s specific needs are “often overlooked”, even in terms of the products people are sending across the border. “Period products are likely to be neglected. But as the majority of adults fleeing are women, the need will be great.”

The fact that period products are often overlooked when it comes to donation drives “points to the way periods are regarded in general”, Grocott says. “They’re simply not factored into how we think about how society functions on a daily basis, because we’ve been taught that it’s better not to talk about them,” she adds.

UN Women is asking for urgent donations to help those misplaced in Ukraine, while other other initiatives like Hey Girls allows you to buy one, donate one with their range of period products.

When it comes to donating period products, Grocott says it’s best to seek out a charity on the ground that can get local products directly to the women in need. “It’s vital that women have choice and autonomy, and are not just expected to be okay with whatever products they’re given,” she says. “In the middle of conflict and crisis, no-one should be trying to manage with products that don’t suit them.”

Since the war in Ukraine broke out, Grocott says Bloody Good Period has received orders for 790 packs of period products for organisations supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, including those from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Albania and Sierra Leone. “Those are all crises no longer in our daily newsfeeds, but their impact is still very much being felt.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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