Syria, Turkey earthquake: Menstruation doesn’t stop in times of crisis, NGOs warn

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Menstruation does not stop in times of crisis, organizations have warned, as women and girls in earthquake-hit Syria and Turkey are at an increased risk of period poverty.

Period poverty is described as the lack of access to sanitary products, a safe and hygienic place in which to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

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During a natural disaster, when access to basic needs – such as clean water and shelter – diminishes significantly, period poverty is often inevitable.

More than 41,000 people have died so far in the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck northern Syria and southwest Turkey. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless and forced to bear the cold when entire villages completely toppled down.

Rubble from destroyed properties as seen from Iskenderun following the deadly earthquake in Hatay province, Turkey February 15, 2023. (Reuters)
Rubble from destroyed properties as seen from Iskenderun following the deadly earthquake in Hatay province, Turkey February 15, 2023. (Reuters)

In the quake’s aftermath, countries and organizations from across the world have scrambled to send aid and relief packages filled with blankets, food, tents, and medicines to help those affected.

Menstrual products have not always made the cut, according to the organizations ‘Jeyetna’ and ‘We Need to Talk.’

Gender-blind response to emergencies

Gender-blind responses to emergencies and policymaking in general overlook menstruation because it is still considered something to be dealt with by women on an individual level in private, Jeyetna Co-Founder and Project Coordinator Vanessa Zammar told Al Arabiya English.

Jeyetna, a Lebanon-based organization that tackles period poverty, has been collecting material and financial donations to distribute to individuals and groups with contacts in the areas affected by the earthquake in Syria.

Jeyetna's poster calling for donations for the victims of the Syria and Turkey earthquake. (Instagram)
Jeyetna's poster calling for donations for the victims of the Syria and Turkey earthquake. (Instagram)

“In the case of natural disasters, period poverty worsens due to the gender-blind prioritization of other needs perceived as more essential like shelter, food, and water,” Zammar said.

In countries like Turkey and Syria, where conversations on menstruation were considered taboo long before the quake hit, the issue is met with near silence, according to the Co-Founder of the Turkish organization ‘We Need to Talk’ Bahar Aldanmaz.

Things get even worse in a natural disaster.

“The menstruation stigma in Turkey is extremely heavy. Things get even worse in a natural disaster, like an earthquake, because there is no access to the products, the sanitation systems, clean water, toilets, or other facilities,” she told Al Arabiya English in an interview.

Moreover, since aid workers on the ground who oversee donation lists are often men, women and girls have been hesitant to disclose that they need menstrual products, she added.

“We found that it was mostly men who take the needs lists for the donations. They ask people ‘what do you need?’ But the women feel embarrassed to say that they need the pads, so they don’t include it in the list and when it’s not included, people don’t send them.”

Aldanmaz and Human Rights Lawyer İlayda Eskitaşçıoğlu founded ‘We Need to Talk’ in 2016. Eskitaşçıoğlu had first noticed the absence of menstural products in donation kits when her and her family had sent aid to people affected by the 2011 earthquake in the Turkish city of Van.

When another earthquake hit Turkey’s Izmir in 2020, the women realized just how much menstruation stigma affected the government’s response in emergencies.

But despite pushing the government to recognize the issue in hopes to be better prepared for the next disaster, the group was often dismissed and told their work was not a priority, Aldanmaz told Al Arabiya English.

However, the lack of access to menstrual products, a safe and hygienic place to use them, and clean water and toilets has detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of women and girls, according to Jeyetna’s co-founder.

This includes infections, irregular periods due to added stress, excessive bleeding, and intense cramps, she said.

“Around half of the population, from as early as eight years old to around 50 years old, experience a menstrual cycle. Women have to deal with their periods on an individual and on a monthly basis, which makes it difficult to sustain in times of crisis,” Zammar added.

“We have been trying to highlight the issue for years and now it is on our shoulders again. We feel as an association that we are trying to do the job that the government should have included in the emergency plan,” the co-founder of ‘We Need to Talk’ said.

“But, of course, our capacity is not enough to respond to such an unbelievable disaster alone.”

A comprehensive plan

The burden placed on menstruation-focused organizations after a disaster is far too great for them to deal with on their own, Jeyetna’s co-founder said in an interview.

“Menstrual products should be mainstreamed in relief aid packages rather than dealt with by ‘period poverty’-specific initiatives like ours to ensure a wider response that such essential needs require,” Zammar said.

Humanitarian aid flight from Saudi Arabia leaves for earthquake-hit Syria and Turkey. (SPA)
Humanitarian aid flight from Saudi Arabia leaves for earthquake-hit Syria and Turkey. (SPA)

Menstruation after a natural disaster requires a comprehensive action plan, Aldanmaz told Al Arabiya English.

In the days following the earthquake, ‘We Need to Talk’ reached out to menstrual product companies to send trucks to the affected areas where more than 200 volunteers helped distribute the products.

Menstrual care goes beyond period products.

As of February 14, the Turkish organization has delivered a total of 4,241 packages that include sanitary pads, toilet paper, soap, as well as other essential items.

Currently, the organization is working with companies on long-term plans to ensure that they continue to donate products to the victims for at least the next year.

“We have been holding meetings with menstrual companies that are promising to continue to donate, not only to us, but to other organizations because we will need the support for at least a year,” she said.

Aldanmaz and her team have also been highlighting the importance of providing the women and girls with access to safe toilets and clean water, so they can actually use the period products.

They are currently working with aid workers on the ground to raise awareness on what they need to provide, as well as how to handle instances of young survivors who will be menstruating for the first time in the aftermath of the disaster.

“Menstrual care goes beyond period products,” Aldanmaz said.

Read more:

Syria earthquake: Aid, relief shortages leave rescue teams concerned

Period poverty on the rise as Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens

Period poverty in Lebanon rising amid unprecedented economic crisis

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