Do Refugees have Periods? Sociology’s Campaign to Provide Sanitary Products to Calais’ Refugees.

By Lucy Pickering and Philippa Wiseman

At a time when ‘free-bleeding’ makes the headlines when marathon runners do it why do we hear so little about enforced (and not so ‘free’) bleeding of female refugees in the makeshift encampments of Calais, other hotspots in Europe’s current refugee crisis and of displaced women across the world more generally?

Supporting Sisters in Calais is but one organisation who specifically collect and distribute sanitary products and women’s underwear, while very few of the larger organisations have mentioned sanitary products in their list of essential toiletries. Is it because refugees don’t menstruate? That menstrual products are not seen as essential? Or is it because – as Karin Gandhi found out when she decided to run the London marathon without a tampon – that menstruation is still a shameful practice in British society, and one that is still largely seen as something that ought to happen out of sight, and out of mind. In bleeding over her leggings, Karin Gandhi brought menstruation into sight, and into mind. But when it comes to the many, amazing grassroots responses to the Calais refugee crisis, menstruation can often be overlooked.

In his seminal The Civilising Process Norbert Elias traces a pattern of bodily privatisation in Europe from the middle ages to the 20th century, noting the movement of sex, defecation, urination and even nose-picking from public spaces to increasingly private spaces until they are hidden from sight altogether. While he doesn’t explicitly address menstruation, we can easily see how it fits into this movement towards new, increasingly privatised ways of managing bodily excretions.

Later feminist scholars such as Longhurst (2001) or Lister (2007) have drawn attention to the gendered dimension of this gap between public and private. Where the public sphere has been ideally gendered male, the private sphere has long been idealised as a female one: ideals enacted in such diverse ways as unequal public toilet provision (Greed 1995), the historic exclusion of women from public houses and coffee shops (Smith 1995).

As a result women’s bodily processes such as breastfeeding, childbirth or menstruation become doubly hidden – first by the civilising process, and second by gendered ideals of public and private space. Being both bodily and feminine they are easy to lose sight of, so when women such as Karin Gandhi are bold enough to visibly menstruate it becomes headline-grabbing news, precisely because through her actions this doubly privatised act took place in public. By contrast, without access to basic resources to manage menstruation women in the Jungle are not free to choose to ‘free-bleed’– without alternatives, there is no choice. But displaced women should be just as free to make this choice as Karin Gandhi, and the only way this can happen is by ensuring that they do have alternatives, that they do have access to tampons, mooncups or sanitary towels if they want them. As The Guardian recently reported women in the camps lack dedicated toilets and face particular gendered barriers to safe living all of which can be exacerbated by not being able to manage menstruation effectively and hygienically.

This blog post seeks to begin, alongside excellent organisations such as Supporting Sisters in Calais, crowdfunding sites and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) to raise the profile of menstruation among those thinking about contributing to efforts to mitigate the effects of European asylum policy. Whilst it has been noted that around only 10% of the current migrant population in Calais are women this emphasises the necessity of highlighting menstrual needs, hygiene and sanitation which may otherwise be forgotten. Furthermore, growing numbers of women and children are expected in the coming months. What makes menstruation more complex, in this context in particular, is its unpredictability, its capacity to be shaped by stress and environment and potential for emotional and physical implications if not managed in dignified ways. So please, if you are considering donating to this excellent cause, bear the doubly hidden burden of menstruation in mind and consider including a pack of sanitary towels or a box of tampons as part of your donation.

If you are in Glasgow, Dr Phillippa Wiseman and Dr Lucy Pickering are collecting these products to be shipped to those who need them in Calais. You can drop them off at the Disability Centre in the Adam Smith Building at the University of Glasgow during normal business hours, or email us to arrange collection of your donations.

Many thanks,

Phillippa and Lucy