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