Inadequate access to sanitary towels and menstrual resources is a familiar issue in Kenya that has pre-existed long before COVID-19. In fact, two out of three people who menstruate cannot afford sanitary towels and products, according to figures collected by FSG, a non-profit consulting firm. The challenges that prevent menstrual hygiene can vary on location and communities across Kenya. Among other causes, reasons can range from a lack of physical supplies, cost, and social taboos regarding basic menstrual hygiene and health. For example, an article published by the Daily Nation reported that policies on menstrual cycles had been enacted in Nairobi but rarely outside of the city. Cartels have even been reported to hijack government projects to provide sanitary towels, leaving little for the targeted communities. And these inadequacies pose various consequences for anyone who has periods, as well as the overall growth of Kenya.
Menstrual hygiene plays an enormous role in a person’s dignity, and cultural taboos can threaten it. Without a doubt, there is a global stigma on the conversation of periods; however, communities implement these beliefs differently. The Daily Nation wrote that in some Kenyan communities, little initiative is made to educate the youth about menstruation, where 66 percent of girls are unaware of the concept until they get their first periods. They explain that some elders condemn discussions about reproductive health, such as sexuality and menstruation, under the belief that they will invoke omens. Parents who try to have reproductive health conversations have been accused of grooming their children for prostitution. Others have been beaten. In other cases, some communities refrain from educating children, especially girls, to maintain their power. Ralia Hassan, a gender activist in Tana River County, explained to the Daily Nation that, “These are the men with 14-year-old girls as wives. Enlightening the girl or child on basic health makes their positions in society feel threatened.” Forums for women are also discouraged by elders, who claim that they are brainwashing to girls. As a result, she explains that many teenagers in the county will confide in their boyfriends or financially able individuals to seek support. While support systems are essential, receiving education from credible sources such as educators would be the most effective and empowering.
The stigma of reproduction health, particularly menstrual hygiene, leaves people unequipped with the proper resources and knowledge. Consequently, these same people become highly vulnerable to traumatic experiences. Students may find themselves in embarrassing situations where they do not have access to sanitation towels or are too afraid to ask, which feeds into the cycle of stigma. In severe cases, bullying can become so harsh and humiliating that students become suicidal. Thus, issues of menstruation become issues of mental health.
It is also imperative to realize the gender-related aspect of menstruation. Not all women have periods, and not all people who have periods are women. The concept and conversation about menstruation need to become more inclusive to trans and non-binary individuals, as they may not relate to the cisgender woman experience. In some ways, members of these communities could feel even more isolated from conversations on periods than women. Furthermore, insufficient menstrual hygiene can directly conflict with their identity, which may be traumatizing. Redefining people’s perception of menstrual hygiene enables more access to resources and empowerment through knowledge.
Aside from reproductive education, menstrual cycles can disrupt a student’s general education. The cost of sanitary towels is often too expensive for families to afford, especially for students who prefer to buy them over asking their family. In Tana River County, menstruating individuals are known to squat over holes they have dug for days on end due to extreme poverty. Moreover, according to Jane Dineen, a writer for UNICEF, “Shame, stigma and misinformation may discourage girls from attending school while menstruating and prevent schools from teaching healthy attitudes about menstruation.” As a result, students will frequently skip school to tend to their periods. And these days add up. Kenya’s Ministry of Education reported that menstruating students would miss four days of school a month, on average, due to period-related reasons. These absences translate to 39 days missed of the academic year. Other times, menstruating students will even drop entirely out of school, leaving them more likely to get married and pregnant at a young age.
Education can accelerate students towards a brighter and successful future, especially for women, as they have the knowledge to make their own informed decisions. It can also be the gateway out of economic instability and poverty. Students can gain marketable skills that they can build into careers. Education can even dismantle the stigma and misinformation of menstrual and reproductive health. Access to sanitary towels goes beyond convenience and comfort, enabling students to better their lives and those around them.
Insufficient sanitary towels can lead to unsafe, unhygienic practices and adverse health consequences. It is common for menstruating people, especially students, to use makeshift sanitary towels from fabric at home. Individuals have reported using cloth from clothing, dirty bed sheets, rags, and blankets. While these substitutes may alleviate bleeding, poor menstrual hygiene can lead to urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and bacterial and fungal growth. Sharing used sanitary towels is also common but can expose people to STDs, such as HIV, and other diseases, through the exchange of bodily fluids. “For those who can access sanitary towels, disposal remains a challenge,” Jebet, a journalist from Daily Nation explains. “It is, therefore, not unusual to find used pads littering bushes, water bodies, and sewage systems.” Improper disposal can expose health risks to the entire community. The dangers of poor menstrual hygiene and scarce sanitary resources are multidimensional, and the solution needs to be treated as such.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic response exacerbates these challenges and consequences. For instance, with the economy shut down and the rise in unemployment, families struggle more than ever to afford sanitary towels. Dr. Kuela, the Executive Director of Samburu Girls Foundation, states, “Poverty levels are very high, and parents do not even think of sanitary towels. The little amount they get is used to buy food.” In reality, menstrual hygiene is often excluded as a basic or essential commodity.
Kenya’s shutdown also disrupted sources of donations. Some schools in Kenya had provided sanitary towels for students, which alleviated the pressure on families. However, the national closure of schools has prevented students who relied on these institutions for menstrual resources. Yasmin Nassur, Superb founder, expresses that the pandemic will increase the sexual exploitation of girls to meet their basic needs, such as sanitary products.
Prisons in Kenya have also struggled with menstrual hygiene and access to sanitary products since the pandemic. Inmates in Korinda Prison in Busia County have openly expressed their frustrations about this negligence to the public after the institution had suspended any outside visitors to mitigate the outbreak. Journalist, Louise Donovan, writes, “There are reportedly more than 100 women in Korinda Prison, many of whom relied on visits from relatives, NGOs and organizations to provide sanitary products pre-pandemic.” Their experience is unique because inmates are confined to one place and have to depend on outside sources directly. The prison has been seeking external support, reporting that female prisoners have no underwear or sanitary towels and are left to walk around with blood running down their legs. In a Daily Nation interview, Judy Gitau, the Equality Now’s Regional Africa Coordinator, argues that the pandemic has revealed a weakness in the justice system that “inherently discriminates or fails to provide for women.” She adds, “This just tells you that [menstrual hygiene] is clearly not a priority for the prison system. It’s really a shame.”
Access to menstrual hygiene products in government facilities is crucial as police are excessively enforcing pandemic regulations. Strict and brutal behavior by authorities has led to the influx of people in quarantine facilities and prisons. If these facilities do not support or prioritize menstrual hygiene, poor sanitation and health risks will continue to threaten the entire community.
Periods in pandemics is a term coined by the international community to highlight the shortage of menstrual product supplies. And it is true. Periods do not stop for pandemics. In Kenya, coronavirus has exacerbated an already existing challenge for many different people in many different ways. Hopefully, COVID-19 will expose this issue to leadership, and change will be made. Until then, we have to keep the conversation alive. This means having inclusive conversations with all genders and identities, even with those who do not menstruate. Being comfortable about periods dismantles the stigma around periods. Besides, periods are possibly the most mundane thing in someone’s life. Ask anyone who has them. Let’s not make it controversial.
Before you go, please check out a list of organizations that you can support. Each focuses on women empowerment and menstrual hygiene in Kenya.
About: We fight harmful traditional practices that affect the girl child among the Nomadic pastoralist communities. On advocacy, we are committed to influencing key decision-makers to make and implement policies and practices that improve the lives of girls and women.
Vision: To empower the Pastoralist Girl Child.
Mission: To make the world a better and safer place for pastoralist girls in Kenya through the provision of life opportunities and psychosocial care, free from the harmful and retrogressive cultural practices of FGM, Child marriage and Beading.
About: We take a holistic programmatic approach to supporting girls. We focus on education, research, community engagement, social enterprise – such as the helpline for planning information,
Vision: We envision a world where girls in East Africa live healthy, safe, educated lives while defining their own purpose-a world in which menstrual health management is recognized as a human right, and the onset of puberty as the most effective time to engage girls in a range of personal health decisions.
Mission: ZanaAfrica Foundation equips adolescent girls in Kenya with the tools they need to safely navigate puberty and step into their potential, while also leading global advocacy efforts to break the period taboo. We are a pioneering voice in menstrual health management that leverages reproductive health education and sanitary pads as a combined intervention for women and girls’ empowerment.
About: Kibera-based organization Superb empowers through information on
menstruation and distributes sanitary towels in the community.
The S stands for Safe Space. We are trying to create a safe space for Underserved communities, making them to be Persistent and Empowered. To create Resilience. And for them to be Bold and courageous and have positive energy.”
In late April, Superb was donated 16,000 sanitary towels to distribute to 5,333 vulnerable community members in Nairobi, Kilifi, Samburu and Kisumu.