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The solo mother of four young children lives in a refugee camp in Burundi. She was abandoned by her husband, her mother is dead, and her brother missing.
Like 24,000 other Congolese refugees currently in Burundi, Helena fled across the border to escape the conflict in her home country. But she has been in the UNHCR’s Bwagiriza refugee camp for three years now, with no prospect of leaving any time soon.
In 2013 Helena was part of a menstrual hygiene management programme which she says has changed her life. Run by New Zealand Red Cross water and sanitation aid worker Chelsea Giles-Hansen, the pilot programme was rolled out to 2,000 women in Bwagiriza camp and is about to be trialled with women in Somalia, Madagascar and Uganda, with the long term aim of adding it to the IFRC’s global Emergency Relief Items Catalogue.
The programme uses kits which contain disposable or reusable sanitary pads, along with soap to wash them, rope and pegs to hang them out to dry, underwear, and a bucket. It’s hoped the programme will reduce the rate of infections among the women, who until now have been using pieces of cut up cloth as sanitary pads, including their children’s clothes, dirty cleaning cloths or pieces of old towel.
“I’m really happy to see Chelsea every time she comes. I like her coming to visit and I’m very impressed with her programme – it’s good for us women because we have no money for basic needs,” Helena says.
“Before Chelsea’s programme I would wear old pieces of cloth. They were not absorbent, which caused a lot of bruising, irritation and infection. The dried blood hurt and was uncomfortable.”
Helena is pleased she no longer has to tear up her children’s clothes for sanitary pads and says there’s an added bonus to the programme.
“If you forget how to use something you can ask the other mothers. It’s resulted in good relations with the other women because we have a common interest.”
The menstrual hygiene management programme is the first time Helena has had contact with Red Cross. She is thankful to the people whose donations make Chelsea’s job possible, and says she is keen for her story to be told.
“It’s very good that you’re here. If you don’t talk about us people won’t know about us.”