Reducing hygiene programmes for refugees will affect women most

Nick Herbert from CalAid discusses the recent decision by international refugee charities to swap  premade hygiene packs for prepaid cash cards.

It is far too easy to oversimplify the ongoing refugee crisis and to generalise those who have been forced to live through it. So often refugees are discussed as a collective mass, as opposed to the diverse group that they are. However, working in Epirus with the NGO (Non-Government Organisation) CalAid has shown me that there are universal needs.

Hygiene items, things like soap and toothpaste, which are so often taken for granted in the UK, can be just one more thing to worry about here. It is easy to forget how important a bar of soap can be for your health, how important it can be for your dignity. This month, April 2017, international charities will stop distributing pre-made hygiene packs. In these are things such as shampoo, razors and toothbrushes. Instead, they propose to provide the beneficiaries with prepaid cash cards for them to buy hygiene products with. While this system has a lot of promise, it is currently seriously flawed.

This idea in its abstract is a tremendous improvement on the current means of distribution. It is progressive and seeks to give back power to people who so often find it taken away. People will be able to buy what they want as opposed to being given what they are told to be necessary. Lining up outside a warehouse will be replaced with a trip to the shops, which will support the local economy and integrate communities. It is a measure that hopes to match the dignity that these people show every day and return some semblance of normality. Unfortunately, an idea can only be as good as its application. And when we look at it closely, this plan simply does not go far enough.

It is estimated that an individual will receive €6.00 per month, with an additional €4.80 for babies, to buy hygiene products. This is for everything, from shampoo to toothbrushes. This money is not enough to cover the necessary spending for one person’s hygiene needs. I went to six supermarkets in Ioannina, the capital of the Epirus region, and worked out that if someone is willing to visit multiple shops they could manage to buy their basic items for €8.40. Importantly, this figure does not include toilet paper or household cleaning products – both of which we later found out are factored into the €6.00.

It’s only fair that I point out why this amount has been chosen. It’s deemed unfair for refugees to receive more money in support per month than Greek citizens who receive similar financial aid. However, let’s not forget that a Greek citizen will find it easier to source items than a non-Greek speaking refugee. Nor the fact that refugees are removed from their families and support networks and are often housed in remote areas where access to cheaper shops is challenging.

This new hygiene programme will apply to everyone; however, it is women who are affected the most.  Everyone will receive the same amount of money per month, but it is largely women who will have the added need of essential items such as sanitary pads. The most cost effective pack of sanitary pads I could find was 24 pads for €2.15. This would be 36% of the monthly budget gone. Instead of enabling more  choice, this amount of money could force women into having to decide what products they go without that month. It potentially removes their autonomy.

This is not a plan of action that has been thought through. The differing needs of women and men have not been considered and as such it may well exacerbate the problem the cash cards could so easily help solve. The card is also issued to a head of household rather than individuals – the majority of whom are men.

This is another challenge placed in front of the female refugees of Epirus, and it is one that can be avoided. CalAid intends to step up to supply women with free sanitary towels; we’ll also be offering to supply nappies. To do this CalAid needs your help. Like all NGOs we can act only to our means; it is the donations of others that allows us to keep doing the work we do. To put it simply, if we don’t get support from you at home, we can’t give support here in Greece. Collecting unopened packs of sanitary towels is something that can make a genuinely positive difference. Doing something so simple can help to support these brilliant, strong women. A pack of pads is necessary for health, hygiene and comfort. It is these everyday essentials that can often fall through the gaps between the bigger charities; CalAid has helped fill these gaps before, with bras and pants, and baby kits for newborns. Any work you put in at home does help out here. Surely we can all agree that nobody should have to worry over something as simple as sanitary pads.

For more information about CalAid, visit: and


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