Hibernation kits are well known kit to those who have worked in hostile environments. They are a standard part of an organisation’s preparedness for an incident so bad that their staff cannot evacuate and must ‘go to ground’ and wait it out.
While they’re waiting they might need a few items. Food, water, sanitary supplies, and communications. These are all kept stocked in hibernation kits. As a humanitarian aid worker and security professional I have seen a lot of stock lists for hibernation kits.
Never. Not once. Have I seen menstruation products listed.
Hypothesis #1: Women don’t work in hostile locations where an event requiring a hibernation kit could be necessary.
This is worth considering. Perhaps women just simply aren’t out there where the rough stuff happens? Perhaps ‘women and children' are still on the life boats first.
Well, we know this just isn’t true. Women are working in places where hibernation kits are routinely stored and used. Women are ‘essential’ personnel. An article by Meredith Blake on the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Blog suggests that in 2016, 42.8 percent of all UN employees were female. While the UN is only part of the humanitarian community, we could use it as an indicative figure to say that, around half, those responding in humanitarian emergencies are female and most are in an age range during which they are menstruating.
Hypothesis #2: Menstruation products are not lifesaving, nor ‘security’ related.
On this point, it’s interesting to note that most hibernation kits do include items like loo roll (toilet paper), buckets and water for ablutions. So, organisations have recognised that maintaining sanitation related to defecation and urination in an event that requires hibernation are a priority. But, strangely, sanitation related menstruation is not.
I’m going to stop with the straw men hypothesis because you likely already get my point. Menstruation is one of the last taboos in our work lives whether we work in humanitarian aid or not. Working in humanitarian aid work just makes menstruation more complicated.
I know this because I have spent much of my life pretending that I didn’t have a period when I do. I pretend that I’m fine waiting for four or six hours on field air strips with no toilets and taking long, jolting car journeys where there might, or might not, be long drop potties, no loo roll nor clean water.
I pretend that it’s normal to have calculated the numbers of tampons I will need six-to-eight months in advance and figured out how and where I will transport them and secret them to keep them clean and dry.
In the back of a car full of colleagues, I have weighed the embarrassment of asking to stop again so I can ‘visit the bush’ to change my tampon against the shame of bleeding through my trousers and staining the seat.
And I realise that, regarding menstruation (among many other things) when I was working as an aid worker, I certainly did not have it the worst. Women who have their periods in poverty deal with issues I do not even know how to begin to conceive or manage. I have no idea what it is like to juggle children, a five mile walk to the health clinic, AND my period. I cannot even begin to imagine dealing with menstrual cramps, migraines and a complete lack of menstruation products as I flee ethnic cleansing, or war, or starvation.
But women DO these exact things. And that’s the point.
Until humanitarian aid workers stop pretending that women don’t have periods how can we truly understand the people we’re serving? How can I expect my male colleagues to understand what the women in that water line are coping with if none of their closest friends has ever mentioned the pain, inconvenience or necessities of a period?
I’m not saying that putting menstruation products in hibernation kits is the solution. But I am saying it’s a start.
Do you have something to say about menstruation as an aid worker? CARE Canada Safety and Security Project wants to hear from you! They're conducting a survey - just click on the link below:
For the survey in English
For the survey in French