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SocietyApril 10, 2024

A shipment of 20,000 period undies is heading to Gaza thanks to NZ enterprise


In June, 5,000 people in Gaza will receive a pack of four period undies, a waterproof bag to wash them in, and a black bag to dry them discreetly. They’ll come from New Zealand social enterprise Reemi, who want to send double the number of packs.

After six months of Israeli attacks, over 1.9 million people have been displaced in Gaza. When periods come in a warzone, choices are limited. Some have had to resort to reusing single-use pads over and over again and even sharing them. Others have had to use tissues, scraps of tent cloths or old clothes and don’t have clean spaces or water to wash them – at shelters run by Unrwa in Rafah are so overcrowded there’s on average just one toilet for 486 people. It’s not just demeaning and humiliating, but a health issue. There aren’t doctors to diagnose infections, but women are itching, burning and smelling that things aren’t right.

The small New Zealand social enterprise Reemi has won a UK humanitarian grant to partner with Oxfam to supply 5,000 people in Gaza with its reusable period underwear, washbag and drying bag. The packs will be distributed through Oxfam’s WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) team to displacement camps which have access to water, so that people can wash the period undies. Reemi founder Emily Au-Young says, “our hope is that managing a period is one less thing to worry about”. 

In 2015 Au-Young was working in international development. It was the Syrian refugee crisis, and when she was reading a report on how food was distributed to a refugee camp, she came across mentions of women getting infections because they didn’t have period products. “It dawned on me,” she says, “that the issue wasn’t being prioritised to make sure it was addressed. Food aid is important, it’s essential – we’re seeing that in Gaza. But who was able to address this [period poverty] concurrently? Not instead of, but as well?” 

But even food aid has been blocked in Gaza, with aid agencies saying only a fifth of what’s required has been able to enter. People receiving and delivering it have been shot and killed. Young children, sick and elderly people have begun to die of acute malnutrition, and it’s expected that 1.1 million people there will be in catastrophic hunger within three months, even if the violence does not escalate. 

Reemi make the underwear in a range of sizes and from stretchy material. (Photo: Supplied).

Au-Young founded Reemi in 2018, a non-profit dedicated to ending period poverty by providing products to people in the most difficult circumstances. While Reemi is based in Auckland, they’ve worked in Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Vanuatu, Gisborne (after Cyclone Gabrielle) and now Gaza.

The period products – simple black underwear with antimicrobial, absorbent and leak proof layers built in; a waterproof wash bag with a textured panel at the bottom to scrub the underwear; and a black bag which fits two undies side by side to discreetly hang and dry them – are the result of years of research. That’s because during her time in international development, Au-Young saw that assuming you know how to help people isn’t all that helpful. 

Emily Au-Young (center-right) and her colleague Nevada Brown discuss Reemi products with garment workers in Bangladesh. (Photo: Supplied).

So before directly helping anyone, Au-Young and her team set about finding out how best to help alleviate period poverty. People they interviewed who had been given reusable pads had a variety of uses for them, like washing the dishes or using them as potholders, “all these things you don’t expect,” says Au-Young. Menstruation cups weren’t used because women weren’t comfortable inserting them, and sometimes women had nowhere to dispose of single-use pads, even if they were compostable. She also points out that to use pads, reusable or not, someone must also have access to underwear. Women also told them they lacked places to wash and dry products, and that often cultural concerns meant that being able to be discreet, or private, about period products is important. In designing the period undies and bags, it was always a user in an extreme crisis situation who was kept in mind. If they could be helpful there, it went on to mean they’d be helpful for everyone.

Back then, period undies “weren’t really a thing – it was loosely a concept in other places, but not like now,” says Au-Young. As a result, she has an archive of “hilariously bad” samples by manufacturers who had never made anything like them before. How bad? Well some have the leak-proof layer in the wrong place, having missed the gusset altogether. Now, the undies are a simple black hipster, made of a stretchy and fast drying fabric, and layered, correctly, at the gusset. Au-Young says depending on how often they’re used, the anti-microbial properties of the underwear will last two to four years. Using them is “so intuitive and easy”, all you have to do is put them on. Then the washbag and drybag mean even in crowded living situations with limited water, people can wash and dry them discreetly, without using too much water. 

An early version of the drying bag in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Supplied).

The cost of each pack (four undies, wash bag and drybag) is $33. Cheap, you might think. Au-Young insists that getting the cost down did not entail compromising on good labour practices for the garment workers. Helping some people by exploiting others would be antithetical. Her and her business partner both have experience in fashion production and auditing factories. With the grant, they’ll be sending 20,000 pairs of period underwear to Gaza, which meets a minimum order at the factory, but not the need in Gaza. Au-Young wants to make a second order, to provide 5,000 more women with period products which will cost $165,000. For that, she’s asking for donations, and has so far received almost 10%.

Au-Young has only had one conversation with the aid team on the ground in Gaza. It will probably be the only one she has, because their resources for power and communications are so limited and strictly allocated, she says. “It’s a rapidly changing situation, and the difficulty is just increasing every day.” Right now, garment workers are sewing the period underwear and bags to send there. It will take kilometres of fabric, and months until they’re complete. Then, in June, they’ll be entrusted to Oxfam to distribute to people in displacement camps in Gaza.

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