When Afghan refugees started arriving in the US from Afghanistan following the Taliban take over in August, 25% of them had their period, according to the organization I Support the Girls.

The organization collects and distributes essential items, including bras, underwear, and period products, to support women experiencing homelessness, poverty, or distress and jumped to respond to the lack of pads and tampons at the refugee agencies families have had to rely on. Beneficiaries of I Support the Girl’s period product initiatives for refugees included Texas Refugee Services, Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, and Asylee Women Enterprise.

Dana Marlowe, founder and executive director of I Support the Girls, is still in the thick of handling operations for period product distribution.

Global Citizen spoke to Marlowe about period poverty during refugee crises, how civil society can help normalize menstruation, and what she would like to see world leaders support people with periods. 

Global Citizen: How do conflict and crisis impact period poverty?

Dana Marlowe: When conflict or crisis arises for a person who menstruates, your period is still most likely going to happen, whether it's a natural disaster, a manmade disaster, or a massive refugee crisis. Your period is not going to stop. Your body is still going to be your body. Your period is one more thing an individual has to manage, regardless of what else is going on. Regardless of if there are people with guns walking the streets, regardless of if you don't know how you're getting a loaf of bread to feed your children where weeks prior it was never an issue. You're still going to be bleeding down your leg.

When you finally do get to a relatively safe haven, whether it's in the US or elsewhere, a lot of ... social service agencies do not have a budgetary line item to go out and purchase menstrual hygiene products, specifically pads for refugees and they are so infrequently donated.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated period poverty for displaced people?

The access to products has caught up. The pandemic has put so much pressure and caused such economic injustices, particularly to women. They've lost jobs, they've lost money, and domestic violence has been at an all-time high. More women have had to evacuate their homes. More people who menstruate don't have access or the financial means to get those to the products that they used to — i.e., menstrual products. More people are tapping into social service agencies.

The pandemic, coupled with being a displaced person, has made managing one's period so much harder because that displaced person doesn't know necessarily where to buy pads. Chances are they're dealing with a lot of different agencies and organizations trying to help them. They might not be able to ask for them; there might be a level of embarrassment just because of different cultural norms. It's hard explaining what you need in a foreign language through a mask to somebody else, and that adds a whole other level of complication. There's also this discomfort. You're hopeful for an interpreter or a translator, and you need to now talk about managing your period or maybe managing your teenage daughter’s period. 

Our hope at I Support the Girls is that we're able to better stock the social service organizations that we support so that they will have these donations on hand.

How would you like to see the international community step up for displaced people who are experiencing poverty period poverty? 

There are a couple of different angles to address period poverty for displaced folks. The first one is always to find out what are people’s preferences for period products? That's really important to us because we know there are some very, very strong preferences between reusable [products] versus tampons versus pads. 

Having access to sanitation and water is another huge issue. So I think there's a lot of education that has to happen for the community and the displaced people, but also for the communities and organizations that are serving them. Education around where and how to purchase when you're in your new community and then education about how to safely use the products. Because what happens if you get to a place where you were formerly using one product and now those products are not available? 

We need to be talking about periods. We need to be talking about periods on platforms where kids and adults are. I want to be able to see more global period TikToks and learn about menstruation in other languages. 

We need to make more menstrual products essential items, just as we do food or shelter or clothing for refugees. More countries need to be talking on the government level to normalize talking about periods. They also need to hire and be voting in more and more people with periods into positions of power. We need more world leaders who have had periods. What we had for decades and decades globally is a lot of middle-aged men who don't have periods who don't want to talk about periods brushing this under the rug. 

People who experience menstruation month after month, year after year, decade after decade, for so many years of their life, are able to make different decisions for their constituents. Because they can view the world through their eyes, shared experience is so remarkably valuable. 

How is I Support the Girls working to support Afghan refugees who are experiencing period poverty?

We have 59 affiliates. Since the middle of August, we've donated over 150,000 items to more than 50 organizations that are helping Afghan refugees specifically. We've helped Afghan refugees in 21 states. We have heavily donated pads and panty liners, but we've also donated underwear, bras, face masks, baby bottles, children's toys, toothbrushes, shampoo, conditioner comforters, and mascara. 

What can everyday people do to help fight period poverty in refugee communities?

The first thing is to be outspoken about period poverty, whether that's sharing this article on your social media platforms, which costs nothing, raising awareness, [or talking] about period products and periods in places that you wouldn't normally. If you are of the means and able to do so, have menstrual products, whether or not you menstruate, in your bag, your car, your backpack, your locker at school, or your home, for people who do menstruate and might need them. 

You could reach out to your local refugee agencies in your cities. See what they need. See if they need you. If it's not something you can provide, can you do a collection or a drive in your place of work, your school, your book club, your friend group? You can donate money to organizations that get products out to refugees if that's something you're ... able to do. Donations make a huge difference in letting us get more products out to people that need them. 

Volunteer your time. You can also advocate in other ways for policies that support menstruation. You can tweet and reach out via ... social media in your city or country to politicians and tell them why this is important. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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