Washing away Taboos

In 2016, the Marshall Islands suffered one of its worst-ever droughts— devastating communities and livelihoods across the Pacific Island nation. It was only when IOM and partners organized traditional women-only social gatherings did they learn of the drought’s impact on women’s health and hygiene and design a culturally-appropriate response.

Some 20 giggling women from the Marshall Islands unpacked feminine hygiene kits and examined their contents. One woman tried on her new supplies as though she were modeling them in a commercial. Her friends shrieked with laughter. Despite a severe drought with far-reaching consequences across the island, there was no shortage of good humor among the women meeting that day.

Such sessions started after staff from IOM Marshall Islands noticed an absence of discussion about women’s health in the wake of the drought, specifically feminine hygiene, a taboo topic in many communities.

IOM staff, female community leaders and local women’s groups, including Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), teamed up to launch a series of gatherings on women’s health and women’s issues, called Cookhouse Confidential. These gatherings featured traditional food and singing and created a space in which women from drought-hit communities began to openly share concerns.

Many of the women, the IOM team learned, were suffering from infections and skin conditions due to a lack of water for bathing and cleaning.

IOM staff and other Cookhouse Confidential coordinators agreed to design female hygiene kits as an immediate response. They included soap, underwear, sanitary napkins, and diapers, which could be cut into sanitary napkins.

To gauge their utility, WUTMI distributed surveys with the kits. As a result, a second kit was designed based on the respondents’ preferences, which included the addition of baby wipes for cleaning and washing and other supplies.

The IOM team reports that the kits not only contributed to the improved health, comfort and well-being of Marshall Islands women, but also started a dialogue about women’s issues and women’s health during disasters at a national level.