A Period in Detention

Liberty Lawson spoke to Kate Milanowicz about the struggle to access sanitary products on Nauru.

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For most young Australian women, periods are an inconvenience at worst. However, just off Australian shores, the women in the Nauru detention centre are not so lucky. Due to ‘fire safety concerns’ and insufficient supplies, women are required to line up for hours to request sanitary pads (sometimes while bleeding through their clothes) from a male guard––a humiliating and culturally insensitive process for women who are often already traumatised and vulnerable.

While working as an immigration caseworker for Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, journalist Kate Milanowicz first became aware of the issue from refugees themselves and advocates. However, the wider public remained unaware of the claims. Milanowicz began thinking of alternative solutions for the women of Nauru, and had hopes of encouraging the media to discuss women’s reproductive rights more openly. After the issue was brought to public attention in July, surrounding a Senate inquiry into conditions on Nauru, Milanowicz was inspired to start a campaign to offer these women another option.

LL: Could you describe the situation for women in Nauru for us?

KM: Numerous refugee advocates have publicly spoken out about women in Nauru being subjected to a humiliating process in order to access sanitary pads.

Some reports have detailed that women have been made to wait in line for up to four hours in order to request their ration of four pads from male guards, whilst other recent reports have said that women now receive pads on an ‘as needs’ basis from male guards each time they visit the bathroom.

From a practical point of view this just doesn’t make sense, and from a human perspective, it doesn’t take into account that these women come from different backgrounds and cultures and often feel extremely embarrassed about having to approach a male guard for a pad. It is incredibly culturally insensitive and dehumanising, and places women in the uncomfortable position of having to ask men for pads or go without. For those that go without, many make do with makeshift pads are constructed from tent fabric or whatever else they can find.

LL: Why would there be restrictions on something so basic and essential?

KM: Well, during the Nauru inquiry earlier this year, Save the Children gave evidence that the reason they were given from guards were that pads were a security hazard as they were allegedly soaked in gasoline during 2013 riots at the centre. But as Senator Hanson-Young pointed out in response, there were no female detainees in the centre at that time.

Whilst I personally do not accept the alleged flammability argument as it is ridiculous to ban an essential item when almost anything can start a fire, that is why I decided to propose another solution––menstrual cups.

Menstrual cups are completely reusable and they’re made of silicone, which has a low flammability risk. They also don’t pose health risks like toxic shock syndrome, and they are environmentally friendly. One cup lasts up to ten years, and can stay in for up to 12 hours, so you don’t have to worry about changing them during the day. They are also easy to clean.

LL: What inspired your campaign for menstrual cups? How would they be better than regular sanitary pads?

KM: I don’t think many people want to speak out about reproductive issues, or their own menstrual related habits, but a large percentage of the population bleeds and we need to talk about it. Especially when already vulnerable women are being made to feel humiliated about it.

Many of my friends and I converted to menstrual cups and would often talk about how great and convenient they were, and one day I just thought well, I guess this could be a solution for the women in Nauru. I’m not saying that menstrual cups are the perfect solution. Not all women feel comfortable using them, as they require a certain level of comfort and understanding of your own body, which some women may not be accustomed to. But by providing them as an option, at least it gives women another choice that they can explore and discuss with other women.

The better solution would be to dispense all sanitary products freely, but this issue has been discussed time and time again without resolution, so putting forward another solution may add a level of rationality to the debate. Ultimately though, people who have been found to be genuine refugees do not belong in detention and processing should be quick and efficient, but that’s another story completely.

LL: How can the readers of Honi Soit help?

KM: Readers of Honi Soit can help by contacting the Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton to suggest that the dispensation of sanitary items be deregulated in Nauru and that menstrual cups should be provided as an option.

Readers can also sign and share this petition to get menstrual cups for women in Nauru, as it will submitted to the minister for consideration and the more people that sign the better:

https://www.change.org/p/minister-peter-dutton-menstrual-cups-for-nauru

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