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Fighting Period Poverty

One of our writers spoke with Ella, the founder of The Pachamama Project where they make thousands of reusable pads, that are distributed to refugees and vulnerable people who cannot afford any period products. Here’s a snippet of the interview. Learn more, do more and support this brilliant project.

1. How did your trip to Poland go? The Pachamama Project managed to raise a couple of thousands of pounds for its cause, and eventually we distributed reusable sanitary pads to 1,000 Ukrainian women on the Polish border. Sadly, we didn’t manage to distribute the pads to any women inside the camps, especially since the washing facilities were very limited, if any, but we did partner with a Polish organization that sends pad kits to hospitals for pregnant women to use. With their support, we are planning to send 2,000 pads to women in need.

2. What is The Pachamama Project, exactly? The Pachamama Project is running on volunteers who make thousands of reusable sanitary pads, that can last about 35 years. Once ready, we collect those pads and eventually distribute them to refugees and vulnerable people all around the world. The people we support cannot afford pads on their own, and as a result many of them would use rugs, bits of tissues and even socks, getting various infections. Our aim is to eradicate period poverty, at least in the refugee crisis, by providing a long-term solution.

3. What is your second project “Feeding families in Afghanistan” about? It’s basically a food distribution program; we raise money from donors, which we send to a friend of mine based in Afghanistan. She and her family put together food parcels every single month, supporting a total of 26 families that would ordinarily starve. For example, we support one family that have lost all their men in combat, and since women are not allowed to work, they are unable to put any food on the table without our help.

4. What is the history behind the 2 projects you are running? The Pachamama Project: An idea born during the first lockdown. I borrowed a sewing machine from a friend and learned how to sew. I posted about my idea on social media, and people would support me by providing me with the right materials. I later figured out that if I could do it, then anyone could. So, I contacted different people and organizations which agreed to help me. Only 6 months later, we had about 1,000 volunteers. Fast forward to now, we have made approximately 60,000 pads and supported 5,000 people in total. I think that the key move that helped us grow so rapidly was that I contacted the media quite early on, and naturally during this harsh time people really needed to hear some good news, so they were very eager to help. We immediately received a huge wave of support! Feeding families in Afghanistan: I was in Greece when the Taliban took over Kabul and I had the radio on 24/7, hanging on the edge of every word hoping that the NATO would stay, but they obviously didn’t. I went to Lesvos a week after that, and I noticed that everyone I knew was completely silent, crying in the middle of the street. My friend asked me if I would be interested in doing this (feeding families) with him. I desperately said yes and thanked him for this idea. I was constantly feeling this urge to do something to help. Currently, we are supporting 26 families that completely rely on our donations. In general, I feel like we are all so preoccupied with what’s happening in Ukraine, that we tend to forget all the other crises are still happening. I hope that what’s happening right now in Ukraine will make people realise that this can happen to any of us. Yes, it’s happening to people near us, but also to people quite far away from us, which shouldn’t make a difference. People are suffering, they must flee their homes, and we should care about that and do whatever we can to support them, no matter how far away from us they are located.

5. What was the motivation behind The Pachamama Project? My personal experience with menstruation. When I was a young teenager, I would miss school every single month due to my period, because I was in such pain I would just sit on my bed and scream in agony. Although I was lucky enough to afford sanitary products, I know exactly what it feels like to have to miss out on daily activities and cancel plans last minute because of your period. I strongly believe that no one should be disadvantaged in life just because they menstruate, especially since it’s not something you can control. On top of all the challenges refugees face every day, getting their period shouldn’t be another one.

6. Was there a positive response from people to your projects? There was no negative response, and I think that that is because so much of the population can relate to how awful having to go through period poverty would be. I think that people were generally excited to see this project (Pachamama) come about. We try not to take Facebook comments too seriously, though.

7. Do all women around the world have equal access to period products? I will give you an example - if you live in Scotland, pads are everywhere (gyms, pubs, etc.), but if you live in Uganda you must deal with the extremely high cost of pads, that almost no one can afford - thankfully, we are currently supporting 500 girls in Uganda. In Lebanon, a pack of pads can cost up to 25 dollars.

8. Has period poverty affected Europe as well? Even here in Europe, the access we have to period products is limited. I believe that pads should be in every public bathroom, just like toilet paper. There are 500 million people worldwide who must deal with period poverty. People always seem to think that this is only going on in developing nations, or areas of conflict. That’s not true at all. There are people down your street who are dealing with period poverty as well. Especially now with this cost-of-living crisis in Europe, the problem will only escalate. We saw it escalating during the pandemic and it will escalate again.

9. How do people who can’t afford pads deal with their periods? Have you heard of any personal experiences? Yes. For instance, there was this refugee woman in Lebanon who we supported. When she received her first kit of pacha pads - as we call them - she started crying. Why? Because for so long she had to cut her child’s perfectly reusable clothes to use as pads, since she simply couldn’t afford proper period products. No one should have to go through this. For many people we support, it always comes to the choice of “should I put food on the table this month to support my family or buy period products so that I will not bleed through my clothes?”. Eventually, everyone chooses to put food on the table for their kids. No one should have to make those choices; we should just come together as a community to make sure that everyone has the products they need.

Needless to say, that refugee women get infections all the time, not only due to the lack of pads or tampons, but also because of the extremely unsanitary facilities in refugee camps. There is no chance you will not get any infections if you don’t have enough toilet paper or proper washing facilities and may only have 4 showers for 4000 people. This is the devastating reality of so many refugees.

10. Any thoughts on the “period stigma”? We should be able to openly discuss about menstruation, with the same ease we talk about any other topic when we sit around the dinner table with our family. The fact that we struggle to do that, results in so many people who menstruate to suffer in silence. I think that if periods were 100% de-stigmatised, women everywhere would be able to speak up, turn to help and eventually get the sanitary products they need. There would be a huge amount less challenges for them, if we could just talk about periods in an open manner as a society.

11. What is your opinion on the wave of “refugee discrimination” we have seen lately? I couldn’t be happier for the positive response and the support we give to Ukrainians! The UK government announced that British residents can take in Ukrainian refugees for a maximum of 6-9 months. The platform crushed the day it opened, as so many people wanted to help. There were 50,000 sign ups in only 48 hours!

When I think of a refugee crisis, I don’t think that the crisis is the people coming, but rather what happened to them. When the media present the truth about the war and what’s happening, people immediately care and open their houses.

Sadly, when you are not presented with the truth but only with the fact that the crisis are the people coming to your country, and that those people are going to steal your job, you develop a completely different attitude. People are arriving in boats to the UK, but if you are white (Ukrainian), you get to go live in someone’s house. If you are black or middle eastern you get sent to Rwanda, which is known for immense humanitarian atrocities.

We do have this hierarchy of compassion everywhere in the world. If you are white and “look like us” you get to stay in our houses, but if you “look different” we send you to a dictatorship! I think it’s all in the way the situation is presented, and the media surely plays a very important role and has a huge responsibility on how they present these issues.

12. What should the world know about period poverty in the refugee situation? I would just like to say this - imagine that one day, without any warning at all you must flee your home and grab a bag, in which you have to put inside whatever is closest to you and then run for your life. This is exactly what people are going through. Then suddenly, you get your period on the way, bleeding through the clothes you are wearing, possibly having no more clothes to change into in this one tiny bag.

It doesn’t have to happen to you for it to matter to you. Even if you can’t imagine this scenario because, let’s say, you don’t have a period and you can’t get your head around it, you should understand the effect this situation has on someone’s dignity and life. Imagine that you, your mum or your sister could be in this situation. Then make some pads. Or donate to us, so that we can make some.

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