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Water & Sanitation

Women-Only Washrooms Restore Dignity to Refugees in Greece

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Why Global Citizens Should Care
Lack of proper hygiene can contribute to the spread of fatal diseases, malnutrition, gender disparity, continuing the cycle of extreme poverty, and more. We need to prioritize access to toilets and bathing for refugees through financial resourcing and political will. You can take action on this issue here.

A new washroom initiative is giving female refugees in Greece a respite from daily stress.

Showers for Sisters is a month-old facility located outside of the Moria camp in Lesbos, providing women and children with a safe space to use the toilet, bathe, pray, and relax before returning to living conditions often compared to a prison.

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Moria, though constructed to house 3,000 people, was overflowing with 7,356 inhabitants as recently as last week, according to a report in The Daily Mail, which also cited United Nations figures recording 11,278 refugees and migrants arriving in Greece by sea in the first five months of 2018.

Women and children — many 12 and under — account for more than half of the current population living in tents there, and are regularly subjected to sexual assault, with one case a week reported to Doctors Without Borders.

“Everyone in the camp seems violent,” a pregnant teen refugee and sex-trafficking survivor from Guinea told The Daily Mail. “Because it is not safe, I stay inside [my room].”

Alessandro Barberio, an Italian psychiatrist with Doctors Without Borders, echoed that description.

“If you compress people in these conditions with no space to sleep or wash, then give them no hope, you have problems of rape and violence. This camp does not respect human beings. It is like an open-air asylum filled with people who have nothing,” he told The Daily Mail. “The message it sends is that there is no value in human life.”

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After reading reports of how the endemic harassment and sexual violence endured by women in Moria prevents many from bathing or visiting the lavatory, one man from Brixton decided to create a safe space for the female refugees.

James Clarke, a founder of the charity RESPOND, whose background dovetails between construction management and festival management, has unique experience coordinating lavatories for large masses, such as at Glastonbury.

“All people need water, sanitation and shelter and you need to be able to build everything quickly and cheaply. The two are incredibly related,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.

And so Showers for Sisters was born: women-only wash facilities set up outside the camp and staffed by trained women.

“We drive women and children to the facilities, where we give them a hotel-quality towel and 10 minutes in the shower. All the cubicles have a lockable door with its own changing area,” Clarke said. “Women come out glowing and delighted, and being cleaned has such a calming effect on the children.”

The project currently offers a system of six showers, which provide 48 showers per day, according to the Showers for Sisters website. Each user receives a small package of toiletries donated by cosmetics brand Lush and replacement undergarments, and they can enjoy time to relax with a cup of tea or coffee in a female-friendly space. The facility is also equipped with a laundry room, an on-site prayer room, and a gym area offering exercise classes supplied by Refugym and Sport for Refugees.

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The project launched in June, and has already provided 550 showers. It’s been so well received that Clarke has redirected the entire focus of RESPOND to facilitating more Showers for Sisters.

For refugees like a woman named Fatima, who had been detained at the camp after escaping religious persecution in Iraq, her first shower came six months after arriving in Moria and nine days after giving birth there.

“We suffered a great deal of injustice, hunger, lack of bathing, and many other problems,” she told the Guardian. “I was harassed in Moria and, even though I was pregnant, they did not take care of me and I had to live in a tent. I was not able to clean myself after giving birth ... it was so lovely [finally] to have a warm shower.”