Let's Talk about The Unmentionables

Our CEO's Interview with Grace & Green

Over the holidays our CEO, Kaleigh Heard, chatted with our incredible partner Grace & Green about our projects in Greece.  Check out the interview below!

CEO Kaleigh Heard sorting underwear at the CESRT distribution centre.

CEO Kaleigh Heard sorting underwear at the CESRT distribution centre.

2016 has been a mammoth year of change in politics and global affairs. For some of us, this time of year is still brimming with joy and celebration. For others, it’s riven by separation and anxiety. To paraphrase John Lennon, the dawning of the New Year is an opportunity for us to look outside of ourselves and consider what we can do to help others.

Grace & Green are delighted to announce our support of The Unmentionables in their work towards improving the circumstances of vulnerable refugees.The brainchild of two inspiring, accomplished women - Megan Beck and Kaleigh Heard– The Unmentionables is a non-profit organisation providing refugees across the world with goods considered “unmentionable” – underwear, feminine and intimate hygiene products, family planning tools, and related education. Its guiding principle is that dignity and hygiene are intrinsically linked. It is something that those of us in privileged circumstances take for granted as a basic right. Restricted or no access to these ítems has huge implications for people’s lives.

Grace & Green will be bringing you regular updates on The Unmentionables’ work throughout 2017. Kaleigh and Megan are spending Christmas and New Year working with the rapidly growing refugee populations in Greece, distributing from the island of Chios. They still made time to answer some questions about the organisation’s key principles, implementation and what it’s like on the ground.

Kaleigh, can you tell us about the core tenets of The Unmentionables?

The Unmentionables was formed to meet the needs of refugees worldwide by providing dignity through hygiene. In practice, what this means is we provide underwear, feminine hygiene and intimate health products, family planning tools and related education programming to vulnerable refugees worldwide.  Given the extent of the global refugee crisis, there are, of course, many needs that need to be met, but the ones that are most often overlooked are those that are ‘unmentionable’ - products that are embarrassing to ask for, unknown or misunderstood, or culturally taboo.  Underwear, intimate hygiene products, and sexual health products are particularly embarrassing and The Unmentionables exists to meet this need by providing these products to refugee populations with a focus on giving these incredible people back a bit of their dignity, both by ensuring they have access to these products and can access them in a dignified environment that emphasises privacy, confidentiality, and their own agency in selecting the products that work best for them.

It’s an amazing idea but not an immediately obvious one. What inspired you and your co-founder Megan to start this? Was there a light bulb moment of sorts?

So we actually had not planned this in any substantial way at the outset! Over the early summer Megan spent six and a half weeks in Greece on her own time serving refugee communities here.  After a couple weeks on the ground and frustrated by both the lack of underwear provided to refugee populations and the state and quality of the minimal amounts that were provided, she decided to reach out to her network back home (myself included) so that she could bring this much needed product to the refugee communities here in Greece.  She ended up purchasing, hand selecting, and distributing nearly 3,000 pairs of underwear during her time in Athens this summer and I was so blown away by the impact she was able to have in such a short period that I proposed that we start a more sustained response in this area. Since then we have been hard at work creating the organization, completing all the legal requirements, and The Unmentionables is now a registered, federally tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the United States.

I’m not sure there was really a ‘light bulb’ moment necessarily beyond when the phrase ‘The Unmentionables’ popped into my head! I had been thinking that purely focusing on underwear was a great place to start but the problem we were trying to address (mainly the impact of hygiene on human dignity) went further than that in terms of products that are difficult to ask for socially, even when you are not in a vulnerable situation.  I’d always been very passionate about feminine, sexual, and reproductive health and hygiene so, for me, that was, in addition to distributing underwear a very key related aspect of intimate health that needed to be addressed when we were discussing how to move forward. So the moment that the phrase ‘The Unmentionables’ popped into the conversation, was for me, a real light bulb moment in terms of conceptualising exactly what we wanted to do. It clearly defined the focus and mission we would move forward with when turning this idea into a non-profit organisation that meets these very intimate needs for refugees globally.

Souda, the unofficial camp on the island of Chios, houses upwards of 800 people. It is an entirely tent-based camp with very little winterization.  At the time Megan and Kaleigh were at Souda the camp had been without electricity and hot water for three weeks as temperatures reached freezing.

Souda, the unofficial camp on the island of Chios, houses upwards of 800 people. It is an entirely tent-based camp with very little winterization.  At the time Megan and Kaleigh were at Souda the camp had been without electricity and hot water for three weeks as temperatures reached freezing.

How hard has it been to get The Unmentionables off the ground? Have you come up against any opposition?

It’s been a very rewarding experience for us both in a lot of ways, particularly because we both have very strong humanitarian passions in our lives and we’ve been very lucky that the process to becoming a federally recognized charitable organization in North America has been so smooth!  As we like to say, even the IRS loves what we do!  So, in that respect, it’s been wonderful, and we haven’t experienced any opposition and have had lots of support from many people and organisations both within and beyond our existing networks, including Grace and Green.

The main thing we’ve come up against is just the requirement for both of us to wear many hats (as anyone who starts a business or non-profit can attest!), get our hands into things that are not normally in our wheelhouse, and just learn and adapt as quickly as we can to unexpected roles or experiences, and that’s often been just as much of a blessing as a barrier.  This is exciting, dynamic work that we and our team are very passionate about and it’s actually provided us with learning opportunities that we would not have normally chosen to expose ourselves to in order to do the work we do!

In providing hygiene products to women in troubled areas – a need which can often be overlooked - what are some of the sensitive cultural issues that you need to address with regards to feminine hygiene?

Particularly with intimate health and hygiene there are quite a few things that are overlooked in terms of feminine care and managing menstrual cycles.  The cultural norms surrounding menstruation and the products to manage menstruation vary within and across cultural groups, as does the openness to new or different solutions.  For example, with the populations we serve currently, tampons and menstrual cups are not culturally appropriate as there are concerns about the impact on a girl’s virginity, so donations of tampons or discussions of menstrual cups in this cultural environment often go unused.  However, that’s not true of all refugee populations.  Many aid organisations responding to refugee crises in East and Central Africa have had great success not only with tampons, but with reusable period panties, reusable sanitary pads, and menstrual cups.  It really depends on the comfort level of the populations we serve and to ensure the products we provide them do not make them more uncomfortable. Our mission is to provide dignity through hygiene, so providing the products that are most culturally appropriate and make the people we serve the most comfortable provide the most dignity to them, so ensuring the products we distribute to different communities are appropriate to their preferences, experiences, needs, and cultural context is an extremely important aspect of our dignity-focused mission.

Kaleigh at the CESRT distribution centre. Chios, Greece.

Kaleigh at the CESRT distribution centre. Chios, Greece.

The Unmentionables also provide clean underwear. Many of us probably dont think much about underwear as a basic human right. Can you take us through how something as simple as basic items like underwear and pads/tampons relate to international human rights?

From a purely legal standpoint, it’s important to remember that in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to and provision of human dignity is a prime focus and is recognised as a basic human right—and often a concept that other rights flow from—the concept being that if actions or circumstances infringe on someone’s basic human dignity they have a right to be protected against that.  The connection between dignity and hygiene is always difficult to imagine when you are living a comfortable life.  However, the best way I can describe it is, think of anytime you’ve been sick or injured and haven’t been able to do basic hygiene tasks for yourself—change your underwear or bra, wash your body or your hair, shave your legs.  Or you can think about the feeling when you’re traveling for a long period of time.  Getting off a 12 or more hour flight, we all know the first things we want to do are jump in a hot shower, get clean, and put on a fresh set of clothes.  There’s a humiliation aspect, a self-respect aspect, and a dignity aspect and often, it’s a feeling that makes you feel a little less than human.

Now think of this feeling in an almost perpetual sense or not being able to access these products yourself or at all, or for your family.  Now, multiply that feeling 100 fold, over months and years with little to no access to the products or services that would provide that dignity to them, and when they are provided many do not have consistent access to them.  The refugee communities we serve have fled their homes for safety but most have spent months or years in political limbo as their refugee status and asylum paperwork is reviewed and processed, either living on the streets, in official refugee camps, or in unofficial squats.  Their access to services and products varies, particularly where items that are difficult or embarrassing to ask for or culturally sensitive are concerned.  So in a lot of ways the lack of access, or even the lack of easy and private access to these products (including the sizes, and types of these products that make an individual comfortable) become an issue of human dignity.  Additionally, underwear, sexual health products and family planning tools, genital hygiene products, and well-managed feminine hygiene prevent infections and diseases from forming and spreading; particularly amongst populations living in close quarters and often in unhygienic conditions.  Statistics have also shown that providing underwear and bras to women and girls living in vulnerable circumstances reduces the risk of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. So in many ways, basic access to intimate hygiene products must be a primary consideration in refugee and migrant response in order to provide these individuals with the dignity they are entitled to as human beings; yet the impact of these products is often overlooked, forgotten, or underprovided for.

Megan at the CESRT Distribution Centre. Chios, Greece.

Megan at the CESRT Distribution Centre. Chios, Greece.

We are all seeing and reading about the atrocities in Aleppo. You are currently working serving refugee populations in Greece over Christmas and the New Year.  Can you give us some insight into your daily work, and describe for us what life is like out there for women refugees at the moment?

Sure, so we’ve been on the ground in Athens for three days now and will be here through to the New Year. The focus for us the past few days has been introducing a needs assessment to refugee populations in the Athens area, in order to get a handle on what types of products they require, prefer, and what sizes and types are most required by the populations we serve.  Today, we are spending the day hand selecting 1000 pairs of underwear that we will be distributing over the coming week on one of the Greek islands most directly impacted by migrants fleeing from the Middle East and North Africa, and most recently in the wake of the atrocities in Aleppo.

For female refugees, the needs in this area are great.  There are many barriers to accessing feminine hygiene products and underwear, particularly in how often they are available and how they are distributed.  In the cultures we currently serve female intimate needs are to remain intimate and very private affairs, even from male family members.  However, given the large populations, the default has been handing them out underwear and feminine hygiene products individually, inconsistently, often in public, and without considering the preferences of the people being served in terms of size, quantity, or type of products that are most comfortable for the women served.  I’m sure you can imagine the impact not being able to select your own underwear size would have on you, and the same goes for feminine hygiene products. 

Additionally, of particular concern, is remembering that these products cannot be one time provisions.  Refugees very infrequently have access to laundry facilities, or even the soap and running water required to hand wash their items so underwear and bras are often worn repeatedly with no washing, which is unhygienic, promotes intimate infections and skin irritations, and wear out quickly and needs to be replaced.  Additionally, these items often decrease the risk of exploitation, sexual violence, and human trafficking and therefore must be prioritised as a social solution as well.  Similarly, feminine hygiene products cannot be reused, need to be provided in quantities that will last through a women’s monthly period, and be provided consistently so that those needs are met each month. The impact of lack of access to these products is significant for women and girls, in terms of how it is appropriate for them to participate in family life, whether they can attend school or lessons, and whether they have an increased susceptibility to sexual violence, exploitation, intimate infections, and disease.  However, due to the circumstances, lack of available products and uncomfortable distribution methods there are many instances where feminine hygiene products are being reused or going unchanged.  Ensuring consistent and private access to these products, and the ability to choose what suits their individual needs best is essential.  Similarly, intimate needs for refugee women are often not met during pregnancy and after birth and we hope to meet those needs as well in the future.  Overall, life for refugee women is extremely difficult and extrapolated by their lack of access to basic intimate products. Finding ways to fill this gap empowers them to conduct their daily lives with dignity and seize the opportunities when they are available to freely access safety, security, education, work, and interact uninhibited with their families and communities. 

What are your biggest challenges, personally or professionally?

Starting a non-profit organisation is hard work so I would, both personally and professionally, say that finding a good balance has been one of the biggest struggles. Megan and I both have full-time positions separate of The Unmentionables, families, and I am also completing my doctorate as well. Additionally, The Unmentionables, from an organisational perspective, is entirely virtually based.  I’m Canadian myself, Megan is American, and our volunteers and Board of Directors are spread around the world—not one of us is in the same time zone! So just finding that balance in terms of time, focus, and prioritisation while also knowing that the work we do with The Unmentionables is one of our truest passions and an absolute dream come true for both of us has been a challenge. However, it is certainly an absolutely incredible one. We’re grateful to have the support - financially, personally, and professionally - to be able to make the space in our lives to do something we feel makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.

Souda, the unofficial camp on the island of Chios hosts upwards of 800 people in non-winterized tents.  It is entirely volunteer-run, does not receive governmental or international organization aid, and at the time Kaleigh and Megan were at Souda the camp had been without electricity and hot water for three weeks as temperatures reached freezing.

Souda, the unofficial camp on the island of Chios hosts upwards of 800 people in non-winterized tents.  It is entirely volunteer-run, does not receive governmental or international organization aid, and at the time Kaleigh and Megan were at Souda the camp had been without electricity and hot water for three weeks as temperatures reached freezing.

How can we help?

There are many ways to help!

One-Time and Recurring Donations: Monetary donations are what we need the most! Our model is unique in the sense that all the undergarments we purchase are from local vendors in the communities, countries, and regions where they will be distributed. Not only does this cut down on product costs, it completely cuts the costs associated with international shipping. It also allows us to facilitate those tangible connections between local and refugee populations, demonstrating how local economies can benefit from hosting refugee populations, by contributing to the local economy.  But we can’t do this without donations of course! One time donations are wonderful, but we also really emphasise the incredible impact recurring monthly donations have.  As I mentioned, underwear wears out, feminine hygiene products cannot be reused, and sexual health products like condoms can’t either.  So by donating monthly you help us provide these products consistently, ensuring that men, women, and children are not put in situations each month where their health and dignity are compromised by a lack of products.  You can make a one-time donation or become a Dignity Defender (recurring monthly donor) on our website at www.theunmentionables.ca/give

In-Kind Donations: Particularly for feminine hygiene products, pH balanced soap, post-partum women’s health products, and condoms.  If you know of an individual or business that would be interested in donating products to meet the needs of refugees around the world please reach out to us through our online form found at https://www.theunmentionables.ca/inkind-donations

Volunteer: We are always looking for new volunteers! If you believe in what we do and want to help we’d love to chat with you! You can find the roles we are recruiting volunteers for on the volunteer page of our website at www.theunmentionables.ca/volunteer. Additionally, we are recruiting interns to assist us with some key organizational competencies while learning what it's like to work for an international non-profit serving refugees in emergency settings. Check out www.theunmentionables.ca/internships to learn more about our internship program! We do hope to have volunteers on the ground with our projects in the near future so stay tuned for that or reach out to us at info@theunmentionables.ca if you are interested.

Fundraise: If you are an individual, team, school group, or corporate entity, or just a group of friends that believes in what we do we’d love if you’d consider fundraising in support of The Unmentionables mission so we can reach more refugees.  We can help you conceptualise that, help you with some fundraising ideas, and give you access to our online fundraising platform.  Just reach out to us at info@theunmentionables.ca

Spread the Word! If you love what we’re doing we’d love it if you’d give us a follow on social media and share our work with your networks! We are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter - the more people we can reach the more impact we can have!

Grace & Green are committed to connecting women through the creation of exceptional feminine hygiene options, and supporting social values in everything we do.

Kaleigh Heard