Field Mission in Cameroon Highlights Challenges for MHM in Refugee Camps

Date: 18th December 2017

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On International Migrants Day,  research findings from refugee camps in Cameroon highlight the challenges of managing menstrual hygiene in humanitarian settings.

A recent field mission to refugee camps in Cameroon offers valuable insights about the challenges of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in humanitarian settings. The mission, undertaken within the framework of the WSSCC/UN Women Joint Programme on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation, focused on three refugee camps that are home to some 38,000 men, women and children. The results reveal the difficulties women and young girls face in managing menstruation. Recommendations are offered for the improvement of sanitation and hygiene facilities in the camps.

The purpose of the mission was to identify the specific needs of women and girls, and to better understand perceptions of menstruation among the refugee community. It explored information needs, current practices and waste disposal in the context of the Joint Programme’s three pillar approach: addressing taboos, adequate MHM, and safe reuse and disposal solutions for menstrual hygiene products. The preliminary study assessed the state of existing toilet facilities in the camps and identified solutions for adequate management of menstrual hygiene and better integration of MHM in the context of a humanitarian response. Data collected will be used by Joint Programme partners to improve planning and accelerate policy and practices to support equity and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation for women and girls in West and Central Africa.

Safety: a key issue for women and girls in the camps

Most latrines in the camps are not segregated and lack doors and locks to ensure privacy. At night there is no
lighting, further exacerbating the risks for their safety.

More toilets needed as well as better maintenance

With one latrine for every ten households, on average, there are often long queues and waiting times. In addition, the latrines are poorly maintained and designed, and lack the basic range of facilities required for safe menstrual hygiene management, such as private and segregated cubicles that can be locked and provide enough space to change, sufficient and reliable running water, soap and a clothes line for drying reusable sanitary pads. Facilities are even less suited to women and girls with disabilities. Participants in the preliminary study recommended separating toilets for males, females and children, increasing the number of toilets and renovating old facilities. They noted that responsibility for cleaning the toilets falls largely to the mothers and this responsibility should be more evenly shared. They also suggested the need to build toilets adapted specifically to the needs of disabled people, equipped with running water and located near their homes for ease of access.

Menstrual waste management: an overlooked issue

Little attention is paid to the important subject of menstrual waste management or environmental concerns. There is no systematic approach to waste disposal of sanitary materials in the camps. Used materials are variably buried in small holes, thrown in the toilets/latrines and sometimes in the river, sometimes burned or placed in regular garbage bins, rubbish pits or discarded randomly in the bush. Both men and women in the camps feel that the lack of proper waste management has potential negative consequences for their health, although these sentiments may be hard to separate from underlying myths and taboos surrounding menstruation. During the preliminary study, camp management recommended the installation of a separate waste disposal system for used sanitary materials.

Timangolo refugee camp in Cameroon

Women and men to be part of the solution

One of the key components of the study was the involvement of both men and women in the focus groups in recognition of prevailing societal norms and the broader influence of gender relations in MHM. In predominantly Muslem and patriarchal refugee communities, such as the camps in Cameroon, men and women have distinct roles and taboos and myths around menstruation often serve to create further barriers to women’s empowerment. Men accounted for 45% of the total of almost 300 people who took part in the study, a figure that acknowledges the central role they will play in implementing the recommendations. One male leader suggested ways to improve MHM: “Shops selling sanitary products; more water taps; ….separate toilets for men and women; waste bins;  cleaning products in the toilets and strengthen the committees responsible for managing the toilets.” Women expressed their desire to make their own sanitary pads; an opportunity, they felt, that could bring multiple potential benefits, “This would be a chance to save money and also earn some money if we could sell them. It would help us look after ourselves, we would not have to always wait for the camp supplies and we would be sure to have them whenever the need arises.”

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