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Banished By Most, How These Syrian Women Are Finding Acceptance In A Lebanese Community

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“When we were forced to leave our country, I never thought that a community in Lebanon would accept and treat me as an active member, the way I have been at the Kfeir Women’s Working Group,” says Hiba Kamal, an 18-year-old refugee from Syria, who travelled to Lebanon with her family five years ago fleeing instability in her own country.

Kamal is among more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria and its neighbouring countries, who are now living in Lebanon. In fact, the massive influx of refugees now accounts for 25% of the total population in the country and puts unprecedented pressure on the Lebanese economy. There is an ever-increasing demand for public services and a stiff competition for the limited resources as well as employment.

Consequently, the protracted refugee and migrant crisis has led to increased tensions between local and refugee populations, especially in the poorest areas, where there is a large presence of refugees. There is, unfortunately, a lot of insecurity apart from a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

Women, both Lebanese and refugees, often suffer more discrimination due to the prevalence of prejudiced laws and cultural stereotypes. Despite the financial crisis in their family, they are either restricted to their homes or forced to find low and unstable income work available within the informal sector, in which they don’t have any rights or social protection.

To improve women’s access to employment and markets, Amel Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation, implemented a three-year livelihood project from 2012-15 in the south of Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut with the support of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality. The project has impacted over 1,000 rural and refugee women, who have learnt how to create, brand and retail high-quality handicrafts, such as embroidery and accessories, in addition to organic and agro-food products, following the highest quality and sanitation standards. By combining traditional techniques, materials and designs, the women working as part of the MENNA (which means ‘from us’ in Arabic) project create unique and marketable products under the MENNA brand.

Refugee and rural women in Lebanon have learnt to create, brand and retail high-quality handicrafts, organic and agro-food products to sustain themselves economically. (Credit: Joe Saade\UN Women)

Through their interactive sessions, where refugee and Lebanese women learnt the crafts and worked together, the programme also created spaces for dialogue and coexistence among the two groups with an idea to build social stability. “The [Lebanese] women started teaching me their traditional needle work and I was genuinely happy to share with them all the traditional practices that I had learnt from my mother and grandmother in loom work,” shares Kamal. By bringing together their own local techniques, materials and designs, the women link their cultural heritage and history with the products, making them unique and highly marketable.

“We started seeing real results of our work when some of the women started creating their own products and exhibiting them. They grew stronger, more confident and set inspiring examples for other women in the area,” reveals Safaa Al Ali, Programme Manager at the Amel Association.

The organisation has also facilitated an alliance with 13 other civil society organisations and cooperatives that are doing similar work to create the first economic network for women in Lebanon. Indeed, nowadays, more than 300 refugee and rural Lebanese women sell soaps, candles, accessories and handicrafts directly to the people from their MENNA shop in Beirut.

“I came to Lebanon as the crisis began in Syria five years ago… it was hard to find a suitable job as a refugee and I could not access the formal business sector,” shares Mona Hamid, a 51-year-old Syrian refugee living in the suburbs of Lebanon’s capital. “By joining the MENNA network at Amel, I gained skills to sell and promote my items at local businesses and also showed them at exhibitions.”

The success of the initiative prompted Amel to set up a MENNA catering service in February 2016, opening up more income-generating opportunities for the women associated with their network.

Today, the MENNA brand has brought together Lebanese and refugee women in a way that has benefited both communities. “The importance of this project is that it respects the culture and skills of refugee women and assists them in integrating into the host community. It is a model that works, not only to make women agents of their own economic empowerment in a fragile context, but also as a way that brings them together to work for a common goal, thus building social stability and sustainable peace,” notes Rana El-Houjeiri, Programme Specialist for UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality in Lebanon. The Fund is now building upon the success of this initiative by supporting similar initiatives in Lebanon and other countries in the Arab States region.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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