Women from Ukraine in Poland. Let’s Think About Creating a Friendly Space for Them

In her book perversely titled ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich tells the stories of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian women fighting on the front lines of World War II. Today, more than 75 years later, women are found again on the front lines.

Even though a lot of time has passed, one more thing remained the same, namely their physiology. When we look at the suffering, we tend to overlook what may seem more trivial at first, that is of the limited access of women to basic cleaning products, including those for intimate hygiene. Or their right to have their dignity.

Menstruation and the labour market

War will not stop women from menstruating. Which means that if we deliberately ignore the topic, this can only lead to further social exclusion of women.

At the same time, menstrual poverty is not an imaginary problem. A report by the Kulczyk Foundation shows that in the middle of highly developed Europe at the beginning of the 21st century, one in five Polish women happened not to have enough money to buy proper menstrual pads or tampons. As many as 17 percent of the women in Poland missed work or school at least once due to menstruation. And one in ten women had to take time off school or work due to a lack of a pad during their period.

The authors of the survey emphasise that menstruating women sometimes need to perform duties in onerous and uncomfortable conditions, often with limited access to restrooms. They are also discriminated against and considered to be less efficient workers who cannot be fully relied on. This, in turn, prevents them from being entrusted with interesting or prestigious projects.

The war in Ukraine, and the resulting flight of millions of women in need, can only exacerbate this problem in Poland. This is especially true in the context of the labour market where most of the people who migrate to Poland will end up sooner or later.

Moving towards awareness

If menstruation is an obstacle to career growth, it’s a problem that needs to be tackled by employers who care about their female employees and also by those who already employ or will soon employ women from Ukraine. It will be all the more difficult with Ukrainian women because of their inability to communicate freely in Poland or are simply ashamed. The shame may be even bigger given that these women have to start from scratch quickly in a completely unfamiliar environment.

One of the challenges facing employers today is to create conditions in the workplace for women to be able to talk freely about their menstrual health and to do so without fear of being laughed at by their colleagues. Today, women are too embarrassed to talk about menstruation even among other women. Oftentimes, they often have to listen to disrespectful comments such as ‘Chill out! Are you on your period or something?’

Such stereotypes usually stem from ignorance. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide education in a mixed gender team and build awareness about women’s mood and behaviour changes during the cycle.

A working climate where everyone feels comfortable should be based on openness, kindness, mutual understanding and trust. Women know best when they are most productive and when they need to take a break.

Workshops not only for women

It should be noted that menstruation is not only a woman’s problem but in fact the problem of the community in which she works. We should talk about health, be aware of women’s needs and ask them what they find important. We should pay attention to changes in their behaviour, and notice when they feel worse. We should also encourage people to talk about their bodies and needs.

What really matters is that open conversations about menstruation can be aided by providing menstrual hygiene products in corporate restrooms, including menstrual pads and tampons – and bins for their disposal.

You might also consider arranging office-based medical consultation or a workshop with menstrual health experts. Some women still have a poor understanding of their bodies and are not fully aware what they might expect during their cycle. Others suffer from undiagnosed endometriosis, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). Importantly, you should think about inviting men to the workshop, too. They will get to know their female colleagues and their needs better.

The challenges related to menstrual health in the workplace may seem overwhelming, at least at the beginning of your intervention. However, there are several initiatives that may help you to break the menstrual taboo. One of them is Career Cycle, a nationwide program for employers.

The campaign launched earlier this year supports the creation of friendly workplaces, regardless of the gender of your employee. In the context of Ukrainian women immigrating to Poland, this may be even more important for employers. Particularly those who want to help immigrant women from across our eastern border take their first professional steps in Poland.