In the aftermath of a humanitarian crisis, clean water, food, critical health services and sanitation are, quite rightly, assigned priority by the governments and other institutions who swoop in to provide aid for those affected. Often, the things people find embarrassing or difficult to bring up – the likes of underwear, and sexual and reproductive health services and education – are low down the list, and it's usually women who are left to suffer the consequences. Now, one female-led organisation is redressing the situation.
The Unmentionables is a nonprofit organisation providing sexual and reproductive health education and items that are often considered taboo, including bras, knickers and period products, to people who have been forcibly removed from their homes. In the first half of 2018 alone, it reached over 8,000 people in countries including Greece, Uganda and Kenya. Genevieve Westrope, 28, managing director of the two-year-old NGO, says it began providing new underwear to refugees "because it’s one of the most overlooked items in humanitarian response". Westrope says many well-intentioned people donate old, used underwear, which puts refugees in an "undignified" situation. The new garments provided by the organisation are a combination of supporter donations and corporate donations from underwear brands, such as ThirdLove.
After knickers and pants, bras quickly followed, and now The Unmentionables also supplies feminine hygiene products – "anything that falls into the category of 'unmentionables' – the things people don’t want to talk about", Westrope says. The air of secrecy and shame that surrounds such items in much of the world was the inspiration behind the organisation's name.
Everything we do is unmentionable, and we’re trying to make it mainstream
Genevieve Westrope, managing director
"We’re increasingly aware of how much periods are still taboo, which is silly. Even in the UK, period poverty is a thing and that's a result of the stigma. Everything from underwear to periods, to sexual health education and gender-based violence, to sexual and reproductive rights, even contraceptives and STIs, are still very uncomfortable topics for so many people [to talk about], particularly within some of the communities we work with. They're so beyond what is considered appropriate conversation that everything we do is unmentionable, and we’re trying to make it mainstream."
While many of these taboos stem from religious and cultural beliefs, particularly around periods and sexual health, this is immaterial to Westrope and the organisation's work. "We try to stay away from religion as much as possible. It doesn't really matter where the stigma has come from, we just try to respect that what we’re saying might contradict some people’s personal beliefs and the culture in which they grew up. We're providing people with additional information and they can choose what they do with that information."
Westrope spoke at this year's One Young World summit in The Hague, which brings together young people from more than 190 countries with the aim of developing solutions to some of the world's most pressing issues, from violent extremism to the refugee crisis and climate change. Sexual violence was high on this year's agenda, and Westrope says the provision of taboo items (like knickers, bras and period products) and sexual health education is intrinsic to combatting sexual violence around the world. Education, she believes, is "the greatest tool we have to prevent sexual violence.
"The whole world is in crisis when it comes to sexual health information. We don’t know enough, and when we aren’t comfortable talking about our own bodies, when we’re ashamed of the natural things occurring within us, then we struggle to even begin to articulate what we want from life, what our decisions are."
All the items and services provided by the NGO – from underwear to information about periods and STIs – are united by an overarching theme: they help to ensure "someone feels like a human". When someone is treated with dignity and informed of their basic human rights – including their right not to be raped or sexually harassed, or to prevent pregnancy – then they're empowered to make the best decisions for themselves, asserts Westrope. "Once you know how to prevent pregnancy; that you have options to prevent STI transmission; that you aren’t supposed to be sexually violated, and that you have the chance to say no – even in a marriage or relationship – then that can start to reshape how sexual violence occurs." The predicted long-term impact of this? A population that know who they are and what they deserve from their bodies and health.
In addition to arming displaced women – and some men, in a programme centred around masculinity and preventing violence against women – with these items and knowledge, The Unmentionables also trains women to become community leaders and educate other women in their native languages. Westrope is responsible for developing the organisation's curriculum of "empowerment and protection" education, and has trained 12 women in Greece and Uganda, who have gone on to spread invaluable information within their locales.
The initiative has been such a hit that some of the women's classes now have waiting lists. One refugee's story, a 27-year-old community educator in Greece, particularly stands out in Westrope's mind as an example of the transformative impact of education in resisting sexual violence. The woman, "one of the most impressive people" Westrope has ever met, was married at 12 and had her first child at 13 while living in Afghanistan. She was subjected to sexual and other physical violence in her marriage, and from her in-laws, and Westrope says she "felt trapped raising her daughter in this situation".
The young woman's life took a dramatic turn for the better once the family left Afghanistan for Greece, and she enrolled in The Unmentionables' training. She stayed with her husband and put to use her new skills and knowledge about her rights within a relationship. "When you see her and her husband now together it looks like pure happiness," Westrope insists. "Having gotten all this information she never had before, she started to talk to her husband about these things and say 'these are my rights'." Her husband even started to get involved in the organisation's educational space and allows their children to be there every day, so their two young boys are growing up in a female-dominated environment. "The woman says she now has the information she needs. She feels empowered to protect herself and that has helped shift her husband’s mentality as well. They now have a happy marriage."
The young woman's story is testament to the fact that an extra bit of information, and the opportunity to be a voice in the community on these "unmentionable" issues, helps women to embrace their strength and make the lives they want for themselves and their families. The power of education should be better recognised closer to home, too, Westrope says; the organisation recently launched an app, UnFiltered, making sexual and reproductive health information more accessible to millions via their smartphones, regardless of where they live. Featuring contributions from nurses and experts in sexual and gender-based violence, it aims to provide the most accurate, gender-neutral and gender-inclusive information.
"The most common questions we're asked are to do with contraception because there are so many myths that surround it – even in Canada, where I’m from. Women have a lot of questions about hormonal birth control. They’ve been told that it’ll turn their stomach green, or that you're lazy if you take birth control. When we speak about birth control and contraception they're overwhelmed, because there's so much choice they never knew existed." That these issues remain mired in confusion in countries like Canada, the US and the UK – there are so many myths and rumours around birth control that women are shunning it altogether – hammers home Westrope's central point: with better education, we could all feel more in control of our bodies and subsequently, our lives.