'Menstrual hygiene’ isn’t something that usually comes up in my job as a water and sanitation engineer here in eastern Africa - with millions of people not having toilets (they usually do their ‘business’ in the bushes) and drinking water full of bugs that makes them sick, sanitary pads and improving the way that women manage their monthly periods hasn’t been high on the priority list!

But for half of the world’s population, it’s a monthly reality that doesn’t stop even if you’re displaced because of fighting or floods and living in a refugee camp. My mum and sister were horrified when I started to explain to them what some women in this part of the world have to go through every month: things that are just unimaginable for us back in New Zealand.

With no other option, women and girls cut up dirty cloth or old children’s clothes and use them as pads, which are not absorbent, uncomfortable and cause painful infections and irritation. Others are forced to sleep outside with the cattle for the week they have their period (in certain cultures it is taboo for women to be inside or to cook while they have their period). Countless others have to deal with the embarrassment and shame of blood leaking through their skirts, not to mention the risk of being raped or beaten if they wait for night time and the privacy that darkness brings to change their pads or bathe. Girls end up not going to school once they start getting their periods because there are no private toilets away from the boys.

This year I am really stoked to have been involved with a menstrual hygiene management project, to try and bring these issues higher up the ‘priority list’. In Bwagiriza refugee camp in Burundi, we trialled two types of new hygiene kits with either disposable or reusable sanitary pads, along with soap to wash them, rope and pegs to hang them out to dry, underwear, a bucket and information on how to stay healthy.

On my last visit to Bwagiriza, Corinne the New Zealand Red Cross communications manager came along and interviewed one of the ladies who was part of the project. 27-year-old Helena is a beautiful, single mother of four children. She is the same age as me - but in so many other ways our lives are vastly different. She has four children, a husband who deserted her, a brother who is missing from the conflict in her home country of Congo, and she lives in a tiny mud-walled house. She knows she will most likely never go back home to Congo, and instead will be living in a refugee camp run by the United Nations for who knows how long.

When I meet people like Helena, it makes me realise just how lucky we are to be born and grow up in a place like New Zealand. We don’t have wars, we’re not forced from our homes by armed militia into an uncertain life in a refugee camp, in a country where we don’t speak the language. In New Zealand we may still have some problems, but we also have a world of opportunities that many others don’t. It is extremely humbling to see people who have lived through horrendous things like wars and extreme poverty, yet who are so strong and proud in themselves and hopeful for the future of their children.

Helena giggled and looked at me incredulously when Corinne told her we were the same age – she couldn’t believe it! She said that it was probably because of our different ‘situations’ – which means in a polite way that I am plump enough to be many years older than her. She couldn’t be more right about the difference in our lives, and I couldn’t help but think of how easy I have it compared to her - with my apartment in Nairobi (running water and power most of the time!), a fridge with food in it, regular pay-check and a family not split apart by war.

On the last day of our trip to Burundi, we were having a final lunch of beef brochette and fresh passionfruit juice on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. On one side of the restaurant, there were two European kids about six years old happily playing volleyball in the sand with their expat Dad, enjoying a carefree Friday afternoon in the sun. I glanced the other way, to see two young Burundi kids, about the same age. They were barefoot and in dirty tattered clothes, dragging an old garbage sack along the beach collecting discarded plastic and other rubbish for recycling. The stark contrast was shocking. How different a life can be, depending on where it begins and what opportunities a child has.

Seeing things like that and meeting people like Helena is what keeps me driven to work in community development and for the Red Cross. No matter how small the difference you can make to someone’s life, whether it’s sanitary pads to improve a woman’s dignity and health, or providing safe drinking water to families affected by floods or cyclones, it is worthwhile.

Chelsea Giles-Hansen is working in Eastern Africa as part of the New Zealand Red Cross delegate programme which has been running since 1960. The programme is currently supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.