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Morocco earthquake leaves women without menstrual care, safe hygiene: NGOs

Almost 3,000 people died, and thousands of others were injured when a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit Morocco on September 8.

The crisis sent thousands of homes crumbling to the ground, leaving people with no access to shelter, food, and water, and while rescue teams were immediately mobilized to provide Moroccans with the necessities, the menstrual needs of women and girls have been vastly neglected in relief efforts.

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In a nation where menstruation stigma is common and ‘period poverty’ already affects 70 percent of Moroccan women, a gender-blind response to emergencies is pushing the already-vulnerable group to the brink, non-governmental organizations have warned.

The United Nations Population Fund defines ‘period poverty’ as the lack of access to sanitary products, a safe and hygienic place to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma.

In the aftermath of a disaster or conflict – when access to basic necessities such as water and shelter diminishes – period poverty is exacerbated.

Survivors wait to receive assistance in their village between Marrakech and Taroudant in the Atlas mountain range on September 17, 2023, in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. (AFP)

Survivors wait to receive assistance in their village between Marrakech and Taroudant in the Atlas mountain range on September 17, 2023, in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. (AFP)

“Initially, [many women and girls] didn’t have access to care products, but right now, they don’t have access to anything. They have lost everything,” Founder of Polticis4Her Yasmina Benslimane told Al Arabiya English.

“With all the infrastructure completely destroyed, women and girls don’t have any privacy or have any access to sanitary products or bathrooms,” she added.

As witnessed with other disasters, they may be forced to resort to unhygienic practices – such as using old rags or dirty newspapers – to make do. If they bleed freely, they might face attacks from people around them because of deeply ingrained taboos about menstruation.

The price of stigma

Long before the disaster, several organizations had been working on eliminating the shame surrounding menstruation.

“It is like the F-word. You don’t talk about that. It is a very sensitive topic and it is extremely sensitive in the relief efforts,” Benslimane said.

Women speak together at a camp for earthquake victims in Amizmiz on September 15, 2023. (AFP)

Women speak together at a camp for earthquake victims in Amizmiz on September 15, 2023. (AFP)

One organization, Project Soar, has been working for years to change that perception.

The organization – focused on empowering teen girls – was distributing period products and holding awareness and menstrual rights campaigns in more than 30 different locations across Morocco. Project Soar was also the first to hold a conference in the country on menstruation in collaboration with the United Nations.

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A post shared by Project Soar (@projectsoar)

“There is still a culture of shame around menstruation, with girls believing that menstruation is dirty and that they are sick during menstruation,” Founder and Executive Director of Project Soar Morocco Maryam Montague told Al Arabiya English.

In view of those cultural norms, the women and girls affected by the earthquake are taught that their menstrual needs must be kept secret and they should deal with those privately, she said.

According to Montague, the emotional stress caused by the quake caused many women to have their periods early, while several others reported heavy bleeding. Many miscarriages were also recorded.

In the days after September 8, Project Soar has been distributing thousands of sanitary napkins. The organization is now looking for long-term, more sustainable solutions to meet their needs in the months to come, including reusable pads and menstrual underwear.

“This will really help set up girls and women to be comfortable during their periods and also just to not have to worry about this. There are so many things that girls and women impacted by the earthquake have to worry about. This should not be one of them,” Montague said.

Gender-sensitive approach to emergencies

Many organizations have rushed to provide aid to the quake victims, but the focus has primarily been on immediate necessities such as food, water, warm clothes, blankets and mattresses.

“The focus was on survival and providing lifesaving aid. I think in terms of not providing menstrual products, it is just not top of mind,” Montague said.

Since many relief efforts have been run by men, concerns about access to period products and a safe and clean place to use them have not been brought up.

“Many of the relief efforts have been run by men. I’m working with one of our partners who does distribution, and they are very confused about how to distribute menstrual products,” the Project Soar founder said.

People receive aid in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Talat N'Yaaqoub, in Morocco September 12, 2023. (Reuters)

People receive aid in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Talat N'Yaaqoub, in Morocco September 12, 2023. (Reuters)

“In a number of the villages, there are men leading, and they also don’t understand menstrual products and have said, ‘These are not things that our women need’,” Montague added.

That is why the government and emergency responders must involve women in their efforts, Benslimane, the founder of Politics4Her, explained.

Politics4Her advocates the participation of young women and girls in politics. The organization also covers all of the barriers that the group faces, including sexual reproductive rights, gender-based violence and climate justice.

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A post shared by Project Soar (@projectsoar)

The government must integrate a gender-sensitive approach into its disaster management protocols and plans and consider the unique needs of women and girls, including access to menstrual hygiene products, safe and private sanitation facilities, and awareness programs to combat this stigma, Benslimane said.

“We need to involve more and more women and girls within this response. Women and girls have specific needs,” she said.

According to her, agencies delivering aid packages to survivors must ensure that period products are included and that the women and girls are taught how to use and properly dispose of those products.

“I’m not sure that there is the proper care given to show them how to use those pads, how to get rid of them and so on, so forth,” Benslimane added.

“Within disaster relief, menstruation is overlooked because there is no gender-sensitive approach. We don’t think about women and girls. We do not think it is urgent compared to other immediate needs.

She further said: “People are telling us: ‘People are dying, they need food, they need water, they need shelter. Who cares about these?’”

Noticing a gap in relief efforts, Project Soar and Politics4Her have begun putting together menstrual kits that include several items to ensure safe, feminine hygiene, such as wipes, a bucket for water and all-natural soaps.

Project Soar will be providing women and girls with menstrual underwear and reusable sanitary pads, all made with organic cotton by certified women-run Moroccan companies.

If providing adequate menstrual hygiene products to the maximum possible number of women and girls is at one end of the spectrum, then at the other end lies the urgent need to overcome the taboos and misconceptions surrounding this physiological imperative. The sooner caregivers and, more importantly, people in the quake-hit country realize the importance of addressing these twin exigencies, the better.

Read more:

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

Wedding party saved Moroccan villagers from deadly earthquake

Morocco’s earthquake death toll rises to 2,901

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