Pads for Lebanon

PADS FOR LEBANON: In the centre of Wijnhaven sits a pink box collecting sanitary pads, watched over by a mindful volunteer. A poster names the recipients of the collection: Syrian women in a refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

Zuzanna Ściborska, a first-year International Relations and Organisations (IRO) student, is the woman behind the project. She came up with the idea after she signed on to volunteer at the camp this summer in Lebanon:

“This idea was put in my head: it must suck to have a period in a place like that [refugee camp] when you struggle with shortages of food and clothes. But I bet that when it comes to sanitary pads, and things you need for menstruation, it’s even worse.”

Zuzanna’s research proved her right. Poor menstrual hygiene is an issue caused by taboos and stigma, lack of education and poor sanitation infrastructure. Together, these problems hurt the educational opportunities, health and social status of women and girls around the world, with greater consequences for displaced women. The issue still lacks scientific consensus on how best to meet their needs.

The issue of menstrual health is often less prioritised in international development, with the issue of menstrual health not even being included on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Zuzanna reiterates. “This issue is not paid enough attention because we focus on aid like clothes and food, because menstruation is something that just touches women and girls. The subject is omitted because we live in a patriarchal society.”

The organisation she will be working with this summer, Salam LADC (Lebanese Association for Development and Communication) is supportive of her efforts.

According to Shaya Laughlin, the Volunteer Coordinator of Salam LADC, the organisation “welcomes her initiative and looks forward to distributing them [the sanitary pads] to the women in need”. A women’s centre in the camp, run by Salam, will assist her in distributing the pads.

The sustainability of giving

Maria Carmen, Innovation Advisor of the Menstrual Health Hub (a German female health nonprofit), when asked by Entrepot about the Pads for Lebanon project, points out that one-off distributions can be unsustainable, and that we should not overlook the underlying issues:

“Why is it that these women can’t access such products? How can we make sure the price becomes more accessible and the whole idea of menstruation is less stigmatized so that even in households girls and women feel confident enough to ask their parents/husbands to buy pads or can do so themselves?”

Indeed, charity drives for goods have come under fire in the past for their paternalistic approach to the needs of their beneficiaries and for other unintended consequences, like making it unviable for local businesses to sell and produce their own goods.

Dr Jewellord Nem Singh, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Leiden University, points out that in-kind donations can be a way for the public and citizens to engage in charity while bypassing some of the typical problems associated with handling funds for the NGO sector.

He adds:

“But what is perhaps more important is the need to be broadly self-critical and reflexive about the notion of ‘helping others’. We need to make sure that we ask those who need help to be able to make choices (and voice out) what they deem as needed, rather than us making assumptions about what these needs are.”

Zuzanna acknowledges these concerns, and believes that her consulting with Salam LADC on the needs of the women on the ground alleviates some of them. Furthermore, practical constraints such as taboos surrounding the use of menstrual products and the lacking infrastructure limit her options.

She shares, “I am aware that single-use sanitary pads or menstrual products are not the most optimal outcome, and I put a lot of thought into that. There are reusable products. But I think in projects like these, you have to make a trade-off between sustainability and quantity. And when it comes to the urgency of this situation, I think quantity is more important. My goal is to reach as many women as possible.”

Maria Carmen notes, “However, I think it’s always great to see grassroots initiatives that sensitise people about how access to education and products for menstrual health is such a struggle for girls and women around the world. I believe the awareness raising aspect is fundamental.”

Shedding a light on taboo

The project has raised awareness and broken taboo in unlikely ways. While Entrepot was at her stand, a male student dropped by with two boxes of sanitary pads. Inspired to give, but never having bought any before, he explains that he had gotten (very) lost in Albert Heijn searching for the pads.

Dr Singh believes there is an important value in engaging with the general public and young people especially:

” We now live in a world where citizens feel disenfranchised and helpless in making a difference. Knowing that we can help others through small acts reinforce a sense of active citizenship, and this is really important in the context of rising populist nationalism and a reversal of globalism.”

According to study advisor Esther Blom, Pads for Lebanon is the first charity collection of its kind held at Wijnhaven. “There have been money collections and awareness actions but not as specific and successful as this one. It is amazing how actively people at Wijnhaven are in supporting Zuzanna on this.”

Maria Carmen of the Menstrual Health Hub challenges Leiden University students to go further and not look at menstrual health as an “issue of the poor”:

“Start speaking with your friends, colleagues and even families about it. We all need some taboo-breaking conversations when it comes to periods!”

She points out that there might be local (Dutch) populations that may be lacking comprehensive education about the menstrual cycle or access to quality and affordable products. “Why not look into how your university could support those?”

The overwhelming response to the project (in both donations and volunteers) has surprised Zuzanna, throwing a wrench in her initial plans to bring the pads as part of her luggage on the flight to Lebanon. At the time of publishing, she is drawing up new plans to transport the mass of goods to their intended beneficiaries.

Note: This article was edited on 15 May 2019 to reflect the addition of comments by Dr Singh.