“I Had To Use My Daughter’s Nappy As A Pad” – The Reality Of Periods For Refugee Women

Photographed by Ruby Woodhouse.
Managing your period is hard enough in the best of situations. For people who already have to worry about food, clothing and housing, period products are low on the priority list. This affects everyone who lives in poverty, with a particular burden on asylum seekers and refugees.
This should not be the case, especially as it has been nearly three years since the UK government committed to ending period poverty and shame in the UK by 2025.
Since the government’s pledge, Scotland has made huge reforms, legislated for change and begun distributing products freely to those who need them. Similar progress has begun in Northern Ireland via legislation to provide free period products to all in public buildings. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all initiated school provision and unlike in England, schools do not need to opt in.  
As the cost of living rises alongside rates of poverty, so does the need for freely accessible products.
For refugees and asylum seekers, period poverty is uniquely distressing. It forces them to deny basic needs in order to purchase period products, adds more stress to the process of seeking asylum following potential trauma, and prevents them from rebuilding their lives in the UK.
This is why Bloody Good Period announced today that it has drafted a co-signed letter to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, to be sent on Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May. In the week leading up to the 28th, Bloody Good Period is calling for people to write to their local MP and tweet Liz Truss to acknowledge England’s shortcomings and do something about it.
Marie* lives in Coventry. She left her home country in west Africa and has been seeking asylum in the UK since 2015. Here, she tells Refinery29 UK how period poverty impacted her experience of settling in the UK as she worried about how she would keep herself dry each month.
As a child growing up in west Africa, I was absolutely petrified of getting my period. When a woman’s period came each month she would often move out of her house, away from her family, to stay with friends until the bleeding stopped.
When I was 15 I started my period and cried, feeling unclean and scared my mother would send me away. When I quietly whispered to her my period had come, she smiled and told me how excited she was that I had become a woman. I remember her cooking me an egg to commemorate my entrance into womanhood. We didn’t have disposable pads or tampons but my mother taught me how to use a special cloth to stay dry. She showed me how to fold, wash and dry it. Because of her, I didn’t feel scared of having my period. I felt proud to be a woman.
Years later, in 2015, my period had become a constant worry and source of anxiety. I had just submitted my asylum claim in the UK and for various reasons was made homeless with my 3-week-old daughter in Birmingham. We were eventually given temporary housing and I was attempting to live on the £36 a week provided to asylum seekers by the government. I would go to the shop and place milk, food and nappies in my trolley, passing by the period products knowing they weren’t as important as making sure my daughter had what she needed to survive.
Each month, I never knew when my period was going to come. The stress of everything I had been and was going through made my periods both sporadic and heavy. I felt incredibly nervous going out of the house in case a gush of blood started to flow – I knew I didn’t have pads or tampons to clean myself if it came by surprise.
Once I was on a train and all of a sudden I felt the flow start. I panicked about what to do. I asked if the person next to me could watch my baby in her pram while I ran to the toilet. I got there as quickly as possible and used tissue in place of a pad.

When I needed to get legal advice about my case, I was so scared I may bleed through my trousers. It was only ever tissue in my pants.

Another time I had been at the hospital in the middle of the night for my daughter. She hadn’t been eating and had been being sick all night. We had to wait for hours to be seen by the doctor. As usual I didn’t have any pads with me. I had to keep running to the toilet to replace the tissue while I also tried to keep my daughter pacified.
When I needed to get legal advice about my case, I was so scared I may bleed through my trousers. It was only ever tissue in my pants.
The most degrading experience I had on my period was when I used one of my daughter’s nappies as a pad.
In such an advanced country as the UK, I couldn’t take care of my most basic needs as a woman.
It wasn’t just me. I know most of the other asylum-seeking women couldn’t afford period products. They depended on donations from charities, like I did. None of us could work to earn enough money to buy the products we need.
The Red Cross gave out pads to women who couldn’t afford them but I couldn’t always get to the donation site on time to grab a packet before they were all gone.
In 2016 my daughter and I were moved by the Home Office to Coventry. It felt like a fresh start for me. I joined and volunteered for different charity groups supporting refugees and asylum seekers. One of these groups, Carriers of Hope, gave out pads to women every Tuesday. I finally had a secure way of making sure I could take care of myself every month my period came.
I’m still waiting for my asylum decision. I’m still not able to work. Although I can buy pads now that my daughter is older and doesn’t need nappies, I buy the very cheapest ones, which don’t often work as well.
For women coming from cultures where periods are seen as dirty, there is a shame attached to asking for help when it comes to menstruation. I’d like to see this change. Having a period doesn’t make us unclean.
However, because many women are afraid to ask for help, I think period products should be free to access. I never want my daughter to go through what I did. Never want her to feel she has to depend on toilet tissue in public toilets to stay dry. It is for her and other asylum-seeking women like myself that I talk so openly about my experience. No woman should struggle or feel ashamed to access period products.
If you want to know more about how you can donate and advocate for refugees and asylum seekers to have access to period products, head over to Bloody Good Period’s campaign page.
*Name has been changed

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