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Shedding light on Morocco refugee menstrual health challenges

In recent years Morocco has become a transit and a host country for people seeking asylum — with a reported 19,666 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR from over 50 countries.

With women and girls making up a large number, considering women and girls’ health care has become a vital necessity. 

A series of workshops were held across five cities in Morocco to address menstrual health care. The Life is a Cycle event was the first of its kind for the North African country, with the workshops seeking to empower 250 refugee women and girls with menstrual health education and care packages. 

The week-long event was facilitated by UNHCR partnered with the feminist youth-led movement Politics4Her, the Moroccan Family Planning Association (AMPF), and migrant, refugee, and youth support Fondation Orient-Occident.

Leading the event were UNHCR members, doctors, and Politics4Her members discussing the stigma attached to menstruation, and menstruation in the migration context. 

The impact of period stigma 

“Around 70% of refugee women in Morocco do not have access to hygienic products that meet their needs,” Rabab Talal, the Reporting Assistant from UNHCR Morocco told The New Arab.

She added that the refugee population in Morocco, “tend to stigmatise menstruation and be ashamed of it to the point that they do not dare to talk about it either between women or between spouses.” 

“Period poverty limits the opportunities for girls and women to advance and contribute to society adding to a cycle of poverty”

This is why the UNHCR and their partners aimed to break the silence on the topic. Rabab said this included “deconstructing stereotypes around menstruation and at the same time, raising awareness on the importance of having equitable access for this population to safe and dignified facilities.”

The unstable situation of the population and the socioeconomic challenges prevent refugees and asylum seekers from acquiring sanitary pads and long-lasting products like reusable pants.

Rabab says: “Period poverty limits the opportunities for girls and women to advance and contribute to society adding to a cycle of poverty.

“These women end up ignoring their menstrual health, which is likely to give rise to significant health risks due to inadequate menstrual hygiene management. Even worse, it can also lead to higher dropout rates among school-aged girls, or lower attendance levels which can reduce their academic performance,” she explained.

“Some refugee women and girls, find themselves forced to take dangerous alternatives such as pills to block their periods, therefore putting their health at risk.”

Personal accounts

In each workshop, the attendees were allowed what many of them had never had before, a safe space to talk about menstruation. 

One woman from Nigeria stood up in front of the group. She said: “In my culture menstruation is seen as something unclean, during menstruation I am not allowed to share a bed with my husband, and I need to use a separate bucket to wash, I am not allowed to go to church even one week after my period.” Her story was met with acknowledging nods from the other women in the room who had similar experiences. 

Third-year medical student and Co-lead of Communication and Marketing at Politics4Her, Amal Ouachhou shared a story from the Casablanca workshop. “A woman from the Middle East said when she got her first period her mother told her she was not allowed to play outside with boys anymore.”

“Not all women have the same privileges and access to menstrual products. Menstruation is a source of inequality amongst women and girls”

The personal account that stood out the most to Rabab Talal was from a Syrian refugee, who did the migratory journey to Morocco on foot with her family. Syrian refugees represent the largest population in Morocco with 5,782 migrants as of December 2023.

The woman refugee said: “On one of the days it was raining a lot, and it was the first day of her period, and she did not have any menstrual products on her.” Her family was struggling to buy food, let alone menstrual products.

To try and come up with a make-shift solution, “her dad cut a piece of his dirty underwear to use because she was bleeding so much.” This was a heartbreaking story for Rabab.

“Not all women have the same privileges and access to menstrual products. Menstruation is a source of inequality amongst women and girls,” she said. 

Women and girls in vulnerable groups are putting “their health and their lives at risk for something that should be an equal right and accessible for all,” she concluded.

Increasing knowledge for all 

Women were not the only ones who received the workshops, men were also invited to join separately to discuss menstruation. In the Rabat workshop, the UNHCR team asked a group of men from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon to share what they know about menstruation and where a period comes from. 

A middle-aged man confidently replied saying, “A period comes from a woman’s head,” another replied saying “It comes from her stomach.” Supporting the workshop was General Practitioner, Vice President of NGO Vivre Ensemble, Hanin Joha who helped educate the men on anatomy and diminish any myths. 

The men were asked if they had heard any menstruation stories. One of the younger men said, “Menstruation is something very dirty, if a woman touches the Quran while on her period she will receive an electric shock.” 

One of the other myths one of the men shared, was that if a woman eats sweet food every day her period will never end. Dr Joha explained that this is why it is “important to educate not only women but also men about menstrual health to challenge existing gender norms, reduce stigma, and foster empathy and understanding.” 

The workshop facilitated conversations, “through this, we can promote gender equality, improve support systems, and create a more inclusive environment for women,” said Dr Joha. 

Medical student, Ouachhou commented on how forthcoming the men were, “I’ve participated in many awareness campaigns before, but I had never seen men as engaged as they were.”

Major medical concerns 

For Dr Joha her main concerns for women refugees in this context are “the risk of reproductive tract infections due to inadequate hygiene practices, lack of access to medical care for menstrual-related health issues, and the psychological impact of stigma and shame associated with menstruation.” 

She added, that to address these concerns there needs to be “comprehensive healthcare services, education, and community-based interventions” tailored to refugee women.

This is an aspect that Politics4Her has worked on, developing a menstruation toolkit. The team of young feminists worked to adapt their menstruation toolkit to the migration context to make it relevant for women refugees. The educational booklet was distributed to the workshop attendees with their menstrual care packages. 

Olivia Hooper is a British journalist based in Morocco specialising in humanitarian and gender-based topics. She also works as co-lead of communications and marketing at Politics4Her

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