Corporate gift highlights sanitation problems faced by female refugees

News Stories, 28 April 2008

© UNHCR/R.Chalasani
Women at work in a Rwandan mill supported by UNHCR. Some of the sanitary materials from Procter & Gamble will be sent to Rwanda.

GENEVA, April 28 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency's sprawling regional warehouse in Dubai recently received an unusual shipment of aid supplies 3 million sanitary pads.

The welcome gift from the Japan office of global consumer goods giant, Procter & Gamble, came at an opportune time. Due to budgetary constraints, UNHCR has been finding it difficult to meet a core commitment to ensure the provision of sanitary materials to all women and girls of concern.

Things have been improving, but the situation remains inadequate. In 2004, the provision of sanitary materials was satisfactory in only 18.9 percent of refugee camps; by 2006 the figure had risen to 34.9 per cent. With UNHCR still facing a credit squeeze, the help of corporate partners is very important.

Many people would probably not consider sanitation when asked to identify the key needs of female refugees and displaced people around the world: things like shelter, food, water and security would be foremost in their minds.

But lack of sanitary materials undermines the protection mandate of UNHCR towards females because it prevents their full participation in education and employment as well as programmes and community-based activities that are organized to help empower them. The issue is central to dignity and health.

The Procter & Gamble gift will help improve the lives of tens of thousands of women over the next year. Half of the shipment is earmarked for camps in Rwanda, while UNHCR will also send supplies for Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, hosts to more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled their country.

UNHCR Senior Corporate Relations Officer Olivier Delarue said the donated stocks of sanitary pads would have "a positive impact on these women and young girls by improving access to feminine hygiene products."

This specifically means better health and better quality of life, including access to education and the opportunity for a better life that it brings. Lack of basic sanitary supplies can undermine the schooling of teenage refugees.

"Many girls don't go to school the week of their period," a 15-year-old refugee in Uganda said, adding that these students often fell behind in class "and then have problems during exams. They sometimes even miss exams." Past experience in Uganda has shown that some girls drop out altogether.

But things can get even worse. A 30-year-old refugee in Rwanda said a lack of sanitary materials could "lead to serious problems, including absenteeism from school and [as a result] even prostitution" due to a lack of employment opportunities. The provision of sanitary materials is thus one step to keep girls in school and, eventually, to help empower them.

By Carla Thachuk Dawn in Geneva




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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