Having your period while travelling can be a real pain. When you spend several months in the field, it is an issue that can take a lot of space in everyday life. Yet, we talk very little about it.
Having your period can be complicated (an understatement), so some women simply choose not to have them anymore. However, not all women who have problematic menstruation are comfortable with this option, especially since it usually involves continuously taking a hormonal contraceptive.
Beyond specific medical situations (endometriosis, painful periods, hemorrhagic periods, etc.), why can periods be problematic in the field?
First of all, there is the issue of the availability of sanitary products. In some countries there are simply no tampons, and sanitary napkins are not found in all cities, their quality is highly variable, and their price is potentially prohibitive. On top of that, we now know that most sanitary products contain chemicals that have an impact on women’s health. This is why some women choose to use organic or more natural means. However, sanitary towels and organic tampons are not available in most countries where humanitarians work. Whatever the quality desired, this requires the expatriate to research beforehand and, in most cases, take the products of her choice in her luggage. For a long mission, it can take a lot of space in a suitcase.
Then there’s the matter of access to adequate sanitation facilities during menstruation. What do we mean by that? Toilets with a door that locks, water, soap and a waste bin. This may seem obvious, but it is not always the case in the workplace. The situation is even more complicated when it comes to visiting projects in remote locations or visiting another base. The trip to that other location can be very long and there might not be adequate facilities along the way. This question is even discussed in forums where female humanitarians exchange tips and solutions. In most cases the expatriate manages this on her own (bottle of water to rinse the menstrual cup and to wash hands, wipes, bag to put used products etc.) and tries to be as discreet as possible so as not to make male colleagues uncomfortable.
Finally, expatriates may have to stay several days in hibernation for security reasons. The decision to hibernate can be sudden. In this situation, trunks filled with basic necessities are provided. However, sanitary products are rarely included in the inventory of these trunks. An article  addresses this topic and questions the reasons for this oversight. The conclusion is clear, as long as periods are taboo, they will not be properly taken into account.
Not only should the logistical aspects be better covered – and not only by women – but beyond practical considerations, it is important to integrate the impact of periods on staff well-being. Having your period can have consequences on energy, spirit, and motivation, and often involves physical discomfort (abdominal pain, headaches, nausea, cramps, digestive disorders etc.). To speak about it, to accept it, is also to legitimize the idea of organizing one’s work according to these natural parameters. Fieldwork is very demanding, but it is sometimes possible to postpone a trip to the field or the facilitation of a workshop that requires a significant personal investment. Currently, our culture does not allow us to postpone a professional event because of our period and that’s a shame.
How could we better take into account periods within NGOs? Here is a non-exhaustive list of suggestions:
- Provide quality sanitary products in all missions, in office washrooms for all employees,
- Ensure that high-quality sanitary products are taken to missions by anyone passing through the headquarters,
- Ensure that there are sanitary products in any hibernation kit,
- Take this factor into account in the planning of inter-base movements or field visits or at least ensure that it is possible for a female staff to raise the issue,
- Encourage people to speak about menstruation, to open the debate to the extent that is culturally acceptable.
What about you, do you have ideas on how to improve the consideration of periods or experiences to share?