Field Report: Refugee Settlement Research

by Mary Maxton Fowler

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On Wednesday, July 19 we were lucky enough to visit the Boroli refugee camp, one of 18 settlements that make up Ajumani. There are 5,000 to 25,000 people in each settlement, the majority of which are South Sudanese women and children.

Upon arrival, we met up with Voice For Humanity(VFH), the grassroots nonprofit that is HCU’s partner within the camps.  VFH specializes in women’s empowerment through skills training and microloans, with plans to implement women’s health programs. We share the common goal of providing these girls and women with menstrual health education and sanitary pads.

The session started with us asking this group of 80 women and girls, “Who here bleeds?” Only two responded with raised hands.  This exemplified the cultural taboo this group of women and girls faced when talking about menstruation. It showed us that maybe they think of it as unnatural, as a disease, or as something they wish they didn’t have.

Throughout the session, we talked about what menstruation is, the challenges they face, and the hygienic ways to manage it. The two main challenges these women face are a lack of knowledge of basic menstrual health, and fear and embarrassment surrounding the subject.

Our goal was to help these women and girls gain knowledge on this critical topic and also to build a community in which they feel comfortable talking about it or asking questions. They now understood that it is normal and okay to bleed. After speaking, we gave each attendee a month-supply of Lucky Girl pads, which are manufactured sustainably by VACNET, employing vulnerable women in Gulu. By the end of the session, they all gladly raised their arms with pads in hand.

These refugees are already traumatized enough as they have fled war in their own home of South Sudan, so it is vital that the aid we provide is sustainable, consistent and persistent. The stress these women face daily is unimaginable, and we hope to alleviate at least some of this stress when it comes to menstruation. So many girls are missing school and withdrawing from other activities because of their period, and we want to ensure that this does not happen.

We hope with this visit to Boroli, that we empowered these women and girls with the tools to understand menstrual health, speak about it openly, and feel proud of it.

I could have stayed at this settlement all day, talking with these girls and making them feel comfortable, but there was a UN food rations distribution happening right after our training session. We watched these women rush to receive their monthly rations: 3 kilograms of maize.

Adjumani has been struggling to keep up with the huge influx of South Sudanese refugees for a long time. The fact that Uganda has an open-door policy when it comes to refugees speaks enough in itself: new intakes are provided with supplies to build their own temporary homes. Boroli is one of the older settlements, so it feels like it’s own community, filled with crops and homes built by the people around us. Boroli is unique in that despite being one of the oldest settlements of Adjumani, it is one of the few that still accepts newcomers.

This place is beautiful in every sense, and as women  make up 80% of the people who live here, it is time to break the silence and taboo they face surrounding their menstrual and reproductive health. A woman who has bravely fled her home to save herself and her family from war should not have to worry about a blood stain causing her embarrassment or preventing her from going to school.