BY: BECKY WADDELL
She shook her head at me for the third time, a pleading look in her eyes. Please understand me. Her eyes nervously darting back and forth finally connected the dots in my head.
Turning my body to hide my actions from the crowds, I rolled my waistband down and pointed at my underwear. A smile broke out on her face and we both laughed as she nodded.
Women in refugee camps experience another level of hardship that men are spared from simply because of their anatomy and cultural norms. It was an ordeal for women and girls to ask for a fresh pair of underwear. Because of the presence of men, the women were uncomfortable pointing to indicate that they needed underwear, and even more reluctant to tell one of the male translators. There had to have been many women and girls who were too hesitant to ask at all.
When we arrived at the port in Piraeus, the refugees had been there for weeks which meant most women had gone through at least one menstrual cycle. If distributing underwear was difficult, trying to effectively distribute feminine hygiene products was near impossible. We tried to create discrete areas where women could take what they needed – underwear, bras, sanitary napkins, and it was always a relief to see the box empty by the end of the day.
As a woman, I can’t imagine bleeding for a week with only portable chemical toilets available, no access to showers, and a lack of clean underwear and sanitary napkins - especially in a culture where tampons are not an option. The entire experience is incredibly intimate and there were no resources at the port to address this uniquely female concern.
But there were a significant number of women who didn’t have to worry about their menstrual cycles – the pregnant women. If it’s difficult to imagine yourself camping in a damaged tent exposed to the elements with limited access to food and running water, try to fathom being pregnant in this situation. The total absence of NGOs and Greek or EU officials meant that medical care was extremely limited and there was absolutely no prenatal care provided to these women.
The warehouse was an inhumane game of Tetris - families and their tents all fighting for a spot in the rat-infested shelter. Space was given to pregnant women and children as a priority, but there was no separation by gender, leaving single women and mothers sleeping in close proximity to unrelated and unfamiliar men. This made them more vulnerable to sexual assault and many of them feared for their security as well.
The conditions at the port were deplorable - something no one should experience - but the inability to have their basic needs met made women especially vulnerable.